The USA is Back, but Not Good Enough

March 30, 2009 · Print This Article

THE USA IS BACK! But still not good enough.

Well, that was refreshing.

A few hours ago, the new US administration made their first public input into the UNFCCC process! It was yet another pleasurable reminder that G.W. Bush is gone, and that his legacy is slowly dying.

Todd Sternthe new, much-celebrated, US Special Envoy on Climate Change, opened his speech with a message that he transmitted ‘direct from President Obama’:

“We’re very glad we’re back. We want to make up for lost time, and we are seized with the urgency of the task before us.”

This was received with a rapturous, enthusiastic round of applause – the sound of hope ringing in the room.

“You will not here anyone on this very skilled US team cast doubt upon the science of global climate change,” said Stern, again demonstrating how substantive a shift occurred on November 4. Every climate campaigner in the room, when reflecting back to the dark days of climate scepticism in the US administration, seemed to breathe a sigh of relief at that moment.

Stern even said that ‘the US acknowledges their responsibility as the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases’. Another big step forward. Another sign of hope. With all this hope, it would have been so easy to get carried away.

Thankfully though, Tuvalu, an AOSIS member, brought the room back town to earth after America spoke, warning us to take the words of the US with a grain of salt:

“It is beholden on me as a representative of the most vulnerable country in the world to speak out. We welcome the United States remarks… but we hope the rhetoric is matched by reality.”

With this in mind, I’d like to offer some advice to US activists – don’t pause your campaigning to celebrate the government’s rhetoric. Let’s not be stupid about this. Don’t ‘give them time’ without criticism, naively hoping that they’ll do the right thing, translating good words into real action. If you don’t push them, hard, then you won’t be rewarded. We learned this the hard way in Australia, after the election of Kevin Rudd, November 24 2007. Let me tell a story to illustrate…

Consider the parallels with the current ‘Obama situation’:

One week after his election, our new PM Kevin Rudd publicly ratified the Kyoto protocol, as his first act of government. It was publicly acclaimed as great leadership. The nation celebrated. I was proud to be Australian again. However, in 20-20 hindsight, it wasn’t anything more than a symbolic act, and it certainly wasn’t ‘international leadership’ – it didn’t step out ahead of the pack and lead, it just brought Australia into the ‘Kyoto club’ that they had been out of for so long. Our praise of the government’s action went on for a little too long.

Following ratification, the Rudd government announced a year-long plan of reports, drafts and papers, which now seems to have been designed to placate the Australian environment movement, create the illusion of progress, and distract us from ‘the big picture’. The Garnaut interim report, draft report and review; the green paper and then the white paper on emissions trading, the targets. Australia’s targets were originally scheduled to be announced well before Poznan, but were instead delayed until the day after COP14 closed – and then they were only 5-15% below 2000 levels – a total disaster.

The ‘Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme’ – government-speak for Australian emissions trading – is now so poorly designed and gives out so much compensation to polluters, that the climate movement in Australia is now saying that it must be scrapped in its current form. One year after the ‘inspiration’ of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong have demonstrated that in fact, they are still laggards, not leaders on climate.

And all this because many of us in the climate movement naively trusted them, placing our hope in government to bring us the solutions that we wanted, and ‘giving them the space’ to make progress through the bureaucracy. It didn’t work.

America – don’t make the same mistake. Don’t trust Obama to save your nation’s climate policies without serious pushing from the people. You of all nations know that healthy public criticism is what makes democracy great.

I am personally extremely concerned – especially after today’s press conference in Bonn of American climate NGOs - about the polite restraint within the NGO sector from criticism of the new administration.

Isn’t it clear to the US movement that Obama’s target of 1990 by 2020 is entirely inadequate, and needs to be shifted? Even the old, conservative IPCC science says ‘at least 25-40% below 1990 levels’ is what is required by 2020. Al Gore’s ‘We’ campaign is talking about 100% renewable energy by 2020. That sort of thing is visionary, and that is where government policy needs to go.

In Todd Stern’s presentation in plenary today, he referred to the possibility of agreeing on a global reduction target of ‘more than 15% by 2020?. Sorry, America, but that’s the wrong answer. The global target needs to be at least 40% by 2020. 15% is strongly likely lead to runaway climate change, and destroy our future. Not good enough, Obama.

Additionally, they new administration is still focused on the ‘economic growth’ paradigm, and on ‘capitalising’ on the solutions to climate change – which is a long way from the total paradigm-shift that many in civil society are now calling for, as an opportunity emerging from the financial crisis. Also, Obama is persisting with Bush’s ‘Major Economies’ process – having renamed it from the ‘Major Economies Meeting’, or ‘MEM’ to the ‘MEF’ instead. That’s ‘F’ for ‘Forum’. By including 16 ‘major economies’ in parallel talks to the UN climate process, they are effectively removing the voices of the smaller, poorer, and more climate-vulnerable nations from their discussions. It is not morally correct.

So what should the movement do about this? While it’s great that Obama is not Bush, and we should smile about that – let’s not allow this to create an illusion that the new administration is somehow a ‘leader’ on climate. Because they certainly aren’t. The real leadership is from the most vulnerable nations – AOSIS and LDCs. And it is with them that our solidarity and focus should lie.

Strengthening the US climate movement is crucial. The next four decades to 2050 will be a people-led but government-supported sustainability revolution. The USA, even after today’s progress, still doesn’t support the growing movement. The government is still a block to action.

If Obama’s reputation as ‘a movement man’ – a man who listens to the people – has any substance to it, then the path to removing their block and replacing it with support is clear.

As the climate movement, we need to not pause, but to keep criticising, encouraging and pushing the USA in the right direction, in negotiations and in the public sphere, until their political walls give way.


This post first appeared in Climate Change Perspectives.


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