An American in Paris: The United States Finally Shows Leadership in the Climate Negotiations

Many of us still remember the images from the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, which was launched as “Hopenhagen” with great expectations and concluded in the “Flopenhagen” fiasco: the disappointment of freezing environmentalists lining up in front of the Bella Convention Center; the desperate faces of exhausted negotiators; the Danish sherpas trying to argue small successes in the summit’s failure.

But America’s political superstars would not succeed if they didn’t manage to emerge as winners, even in moments of defeat. U.S. president Barack Obama somehow thwarted the image of Europeans marked by the poor results of months of negotiations. Obama flew in to Copenhagen by helicopter, cut through the icy Scandinavian winds toward the conference venue, and assembled those around him whom he decided were the chosen few.

It is this other image that we conjure up when remembering Copenhagen: the U.S. president, with his sleeves rolled up, surrounded by the representatives of Brazil, China, India, and South Africa. The message: “We saved what could be saved.” But to anyone familiar enough with the negotiations to look behind the façade, this image actually showed those who had sabotaged the ambitious plans of Europeans and their coalition of “more willing but less mighty.” The picture was deceptive: What was rescued was not the climate, the environment, or sustainable development, but a minimal consensus to continue talking. After that, the world became relatively silent on climate diplomacy. But the talking did continue, and it led to much more progress than could have been expected shortly after Copenhagen.

The current United Nations climate conference in Paris, the 21st annual meeting of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, is unlike those in recent years, when the shards of Copenhagen were collected, and what was still useful was re-connected. COP21 is one of the important ones, “a big one,” just like Rio in 1992, Kyoto in 1997, and Copenhagen in 2009. But this time, there are many indications that the enduring image could in fact be a victorious one showing all key actors, with the governments of all countries able to agree on far-reaching measures to protect the climate.

At the end of the Paris talks, on December 12 or 13, a truly historic, world-changing agreement might well emerge—an agreement on how the peoples of this planet run their economies, produce and use energy, deal with their forests, prepare for environmental changes resulting from their activities—and even how they treat each other doing all this. Paris is a tremendous opportunity to make a decisive step toward a safer, more just, and more sustainable Earth, the best one that we’ve had in a very long time. That is the opportunity—not least because of the role that the United States will play this time. The White House has decided, and is joining Brazil, China, Europe, South Africa, and hopefully India in this view—that now is the time to agree internationally, based on a plan for what needs to happen at home.

On the domestic front, the situation in the United States has changed little in recent years. There is still no comprehensive federal policy on climate and energy that could support international commitments. The climate discourse across “America the Beautiful,” in contrast to the debate in most countries around the world, remains hot-tempered and politically biased. Climate change is a partisan issue that runs pretty much along party lines.

The Republican majority in Congress is openly opposed to any measures aimed at mitigating climate change. Period. Much of that majority is challenging the climate science that underlies the rationale to act. People in other countries might laugh at this at first—but for Americans, and everybody else, who cares about the health of our planet, the laughter dies in their throats. To most Republicans, climate change either does not exist at all, or it is natural and not human-caused, or its existence is God’s will. Phase out fossil fuels? Bad for the economy, contrarian to the American spirit, communist, un-Christian, and so on. The intellectual level of the argumentation of America’s right wing is subterranean. In Paris, a Republican delegation has been announced that will try to counter the negotiations.

Or are we overlooking how much the United States has, in fact, changed? We may well be. Looking behind the façade, behind the partisan images created by the talking heads on television, it becomes clear that the U.S. Congress is no longer representative of the country when it comes to climate change. The majority of Americans believes that climate change is real; this group is in favor of a safe climate, sustainable development, and sustained growth. It supports an ambitious climate deal in Paris. And many Americans have started to act.

U.S. greenhouse gas emissions recently have declined due to the leadership of many states, hundreds of cities and communities, and millions of Americans. The White House often supports these sub-federal actions, and it is bypassing legislative inaction by supporting research and development, working with the Environmental Protection Agency, and enacting budgetary changes that benefit clean energy, agriculture, and industry. The administration has shown a great effort to educate the American public about the dangers of climate change and the opportunities of tackling it.

It is obvious that Obama has learned from the past, from his own political defeats on major legislative initiatives, as much as from those of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who also had aspired to become a climate champion but failed to accomplish ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in Congress. In Paris, the U.S. negotiators will ensure that the results are not “a treaty” per se, as defined under international law, in order to avoid the necessity to win Congressional approval. In Paris, Obama will continue to fight for a “bottom-up” rather than a “top-down” agreement, with voluntary, realistic, but ambitious emission targets for all countries, supported by concrete activities in the fields of energy, industry, transport, agriculture, and forestry. In a way, the Paris deal of trickle-up dynamics from national action to global agreement will mirror the bottom-up movement of climate action in the United States, from the local to the national.

For the final months of his presidency, there are few topics of greater importance to President Barack Obama than progress on climate protection and a green economy. The images of Paris will be far more enjoyable and more honest than those of previous summits. In their midst, again, the American president will shine. This time for real.


Alexander Ochs is the director of climate and energy at the Worldwatch Institute. This is an extended and altered version of an article that was published earlier this week in the Austrian daily Wiener Zeitung.

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