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Obama's 'green dream'

Richard Black | 12:16 UK time, Monday, 22 December 2008

Barack Obama's choice of words as he announced new officials for his climate and energy team at the weekend could hardly have been more pointed.

Success isn't just down to "ensuring the facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology," he said; "it's about listening to what our scientists have to say even when it's inconvenient - especially when it's inconvenient".

obamaap203.jpgIn other words; in contrast to my predecessor, I'll listen to the same scientists that Al Gore listens to, and I'll act on what they say.

In fact, by appointing scientists such as John Holdren to his inner circle - "one of the most passionate and persistent voices of our time about the growing threat of climate change" - the president-elect has ensured that some of those voices will be in his ear all the time.

Whatever your views on climate change, there's no doubt that the switch from the Bush to Obama administrations promises a massive seachange in environmental politics.

It could bring changes in all sorts of issues, including management of the oceans, a particular interest of Jane Lubchenco who comes in as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa). Some US fisheries are among the best managed in the world and spreading that sort of knowledge could restrain the free-for-all that still pertains in many of the world's fishing grounds.

But there's little doubt that the first significant action will occur in the arena of climate change.

Mr Bush is often referred to as a president who didn't accept that humans were changing the climate; but at least in public, he did, as long ago as 2001. His administration also endorsed two major reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2001 and 2007 - the latter concluding it was "very likely" that human activities were changing the climate.

But he stopped short of endorsing strong domestic or international action to cut emissions. His administration pursued agreements through bodies such as the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate and the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum (Apec) that would have allowed emissions to rise.

At the Asia-Pacific Partnership's inaugural meeting in Sydney in 2006, Mr Bush's energy secretary Samuel Bodman said the private sector would solve the climate problem because industry heads cared about the future.

From 20 January, the approach will be radically different.

The domestic long-term climate goal of reducing emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050 is ambitious and in line with IPCC science. But by 2050, Mr Obama will be long gone from office, and so what he manages to implement during the only four years he is assured of having in office is, perhaps, more pertinent.

If he follows through on the strategy he mapped out during his election campaign, the domestic measures we can expect to see over the next couple of years include:


  • establishment of a nationwide carbon market which will join up with other systems such as Europe's Emissions Trading System

  • mandated improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency (perhaps tied to a rescue package for the ailing US car industry)

  • "weatherization" of one million homes each year to save energy

  • an expansion in the use of renewable technologies and - perhaps - nuclear

Pledging is, of course, much easier than acting. Over the last month we have seen European leaders watering down their much-vaunted climate and energy package, and Australia (where Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has changed climate policy just as Mr Obama intends to) adopting emissions targets for 2020 well below the 25-40% range that the IPCC recommends - both in response to business pressures.

foodgetty203.jpgMr Obama will not be immune from similar pressures. The two key advantages he holds, I would suggest, are the traditional honeymoon that most change-espousing leaders enjoy when they enter office, and the fact that US energy efficiency is so poor that it should be possible to make some major fuel-saving improvements at minimal cost.

On the international scene, he has pledged to "re-engage" with the UN process, and that has been warmly welcomed in a number of capitals.

So far, all has been sweetness. But that is not guaranteed to continue.

Developing countries might say - indeed, did say at the recent UN climate talks in Poland - that they have been looking for US leadership on the issue.

But that doesn't necessarily mean they will be happy to follow where Mr Obama wants to lead them. At a news conference during the UN talks, John Kerry - a key ally - emphasised that the US will only approve a new global deal if major developing countries accept some form of restrictions on their own emissions.

Mr Kerry's words were generally written up in positive terms by the media. But putting on a more sceptical hat, there were hints of an uncompromising US that would, as it does on so many other issues, be attempting to set an agenda that the rest of the world should follow.

And this, I think, is the problem that may lie ahead for Mr Obama. Applauding his intention to lead is one thing; but it's entirely possible that the tight timescale of the UN climate process will quickly lead to a situation where the US is demanding - or being seen to demand - that developing countries must sign up to this or that, or there won't be a deal.

That's particularly true in the light of recent research showing that carbon cuts in developed countries alone cannot lead to the kind of global reductions that the IPCC believes are necessary to avoid "dangerous" climate change.

However fresh and fragrant Mr Obama wants to appear, the US is still the US, with an image formed over a much longer timespan than a single presidency.

In some capitals, it is still seen as the country that more than any other has developed economically on the back of carbon emissions that now threaten to wreak climatic carnage on the poor, and thus has no right to tell anyone else to do until it pays some penance for its history.

If governments are to agree a new global deal on climate change by the end of next year, the US is going to have to listen as well as to lead; and that, perhaps, ought to be the first piece of advice that Dr Holdren gives his new president.

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