New York, NY -- President Obama's speech to the UN yesterday made it clear that the United States is emerging as the biggest obstacle to a successful climate summit in Copenhagen. The speech repeated the President's previous policy commitments but failed to call on Congress to make a decisive break with the energy policies of the past. The President did not address the chasm between what the U.S. has offered to date and what the science -- and the world -- are asking us to do. Reading between the lines, it's clear that the President wants to do more, but that he's not yet ready to make a decisive move and throw his political capital into the game. Saying, "One committee has already acted on this bill in the Senate and I look forward to engaging with others as we move forward" is not the kind of signal that will light a fire under the obstructionists.
You can blame the politics of the Congress for part of the failure. A firm commitment to reduce U.S. greenhouse pollution by 2 billion tons by 2020 (which is what we really need) simply doesn't have 60 votes in the Senate, and President Obama is determined not to take to Copenhagen any steps than are bolder than Congress will back. But what's more disappointing is the administration's failure thus far to even acknowledge (much less ask Congress for) the kind of funding that will be needed to put the developing world on a low-carbon pathway. When it came to that topic, the President spoke in generalities: "That is why we have a responsibility to provide the financial and technical assistance needed to help these nations adapt to the impacts of climate change and pursue low-carbon development."
But Todd Stern, the administration's chief climate negotiator, has been more specific -- repeatedly refusing to join the European Union in making financial commitments to create capital for low-carbon development in the Third World. Perhaps partly as a result, Europe, in the run-up to the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, cut way back on its earlier offer of $19 to 35 billion, aiming instead at a range of $3 to 25 billion.
Unfortunately, the estimates of what will be needed range from $100 billion to $500 billion. The industrial world keeps talking about this as if it were a form of foreign aid, on which we could decide to be less generous because of our economic crisis. But, in reality, we're dumping our CO2 pollution into the skies, the oceans, the forests and soils of other countries -- and just as you would have to pay me if you wanted to use my property to dump your garbage, the coal and oil companies should have to pay the rest of the world for the carbon sinks they are taking (as well as the crops they are risking, the rise in sea level they're causing, and so on).
Meanwhile, other nations are stepping up the plate. The Japanese government announced a much bolder commitment to reduce its emissions by 25 percent; India has committed itself for the first time to emission limits, and China has announced its own emission trading system.
Increasingly, it looks like if the Copenhagen summit runs aground, Washington will be to blame.