What Obama hasn’t done on climate change

Environmental policymaking in the US is getting a real battering by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives as it debates budget plans – taking an axe to the powers and funding of the main regulatory body, the EPA, as well as other environmental agencies; and cutting the tiny amount of US funding to the IPCC.

And as the lead US envoy on the climate negotiations starts continues to dial down expectations for the year-end UN summit, this year in Durban, South Africa, whatever happened to Obama’s 2008 victory declaration to address one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime, “a planet in peril”?

Well, as I’ve posted a year ago, the Obama administration has had to face certain structural conditions and ideas that circumscribe his freedom of movement, conditions that are easy to forget about. But the bluntness of a post-Cancun summary report on the state of international climate policy from the Heinrich Boll Foundation still struck me in its comparison between the Obama and George W. Bush administrations:

“In practice, climate diplomacy is thus facing a similar challenge as during the eight long years of George W. Bush’s presidency, after Bush had withdrawn the United States from negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. The overriding question again is: How can international climate policy move forward without the world’s historic largest emitter and the last remaining superpower?”

This might not be completely fair. At the very least, there’s a profound moral difference between Obama and Bush in their entire attitude to climate change and what they have sought to accomplish. But principled preferences and wish-lists aside, the difference between these two administrations in their impact on the rising pace of global greenhouse gas emissions seems to be pretty negligible. For those of us who thought that substantive global climate action was a matter of waiting out the Bush years, this is pretty sobering stuff.

A year ago, when Obama chose to prioritize healthcare reform and punted climate and energy legislation into the long grass, I thought that the best hope would only next come after 2012 – in a second Obama term, if that materialized. With a Republican House, that seems more and more like the case. And whether that puts climate diplomacy into the freezer, to wait for yet another US presidential election cycle, well…

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