President Obama's election to a second term means America can "push the reset button" on the turbulent U.N. climate change negotiations, World Resources Institute President Andrew Steer said yesterday.
Steer, who served as the World Bank's climate change envoy before joining WRI in August, said it is time for the administration to show "real leadership" on climate change. Others called on U.S. diplomats to embrace the goal of keeping global average temperatures below a 2 degrees Celsius rise over preindustrial levels and to show how they intend to cut carbon at home.
"I think history will judge any president from now onwards not to have succeeded if he doesn't really grapple with this issue seriously," Steer said. "We really have an opportunity now to push the reset button with regards to the negotiations."
Diplomats from 192 countries will meet later this month in Doha, Qatar, for the 18th annual conference of the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, otherwise known as COP18. Expectations have been low -- aimed mostly at filling in the blanks of a still-ambiguous agreement made in Durban, South Africa, last year to develop a legally binding emissions agreement among all nations by 2015 to go into effect by 2020.
The U.S. presidential election, however, has heightened hopes for a more decisive embrace of a global climate treaty and perhaps even more ambitious carbon reduction targets from major emitters.
'Your legacy' at stake
In an open letter to Obama last week, Pa Ousman Jarju, the lead negotiator for the world's poorest nations, said the president has not lived up to the promise of becoming an international leader on climate change. He noted the pledges that nations made in Copenhagen, Denmark, largely at Obama's behest, do not add up to cuts that will avert catastrophic warming.
"This year's meeting in Qatar may be our last chance to put forward a new vision and plan to reverse this course," Jarju wrote. "Your legacy and the future of our children and grandchildren depend on it."
He, like other environmentalists, called on the United States to pump up the pledge Obama made at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit to cut America's carbon output 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Many nations consider that a weak pledge, because the United States is the world's biggest historical emitter, but also argue the country isn't even moving on that target.
"There are two levels of what the U.S. could offer in Doha. The first is high-level, to recommit itself to the 2-degree target. I think that particularly after the Dartmouth speech that came out this summer by Todd Stern, there have been some questions about the U.S. commitment to that goal," said Jennifer Morgan, climate and energy director for WRI.
Stern in his speech called for a "flexible, evolving legal agreement" that might not guarantee a 2-degree goal, saying, "Insisting on a structure that would guarantee such a goal will only lead to deadlock." He later clarified his comments, maintaining the United States supports the 2-degree goal, but many diplomats and environmentalists say the comment left lingering doubts.
Meanwhile, Morgan said, the Obama administration needs to show countries how it plans to use executive authority to meet, and possibly beat, its 17 percent target. "One would hope that the Obama team comes refreshed with a new strategy," she said.
Paul Bledsoe, an independent policy consultant and former Clinton White House energy official, said the United States deserves credit for driving what has become a "pledge-and-review" approach to cutting carbon that differs from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, in which emissions targets were divided up among wealthy nations in the attempt to reach a goal of a 5.2 percent global emissions cut.