The frenzy of 2009 culminated at the climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, where, instead of developing a new global treaty as many hoped, Obama, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and a handful of other world leaders worked through the night to cut a deal.
Through the eyes of many American analysts, the Copenhagen Accord that emerged that night -- recording emissions pledges of every major emitter -- was a success for which the U.S. negotiating team and Obama himself deserve credit.
"I don't think China would have inscribed anything on mitigation if not for the personal intervention of the president," said Joe Aldy, an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and a longtime White House aide who served as special assistant to the president for energy during Copenhagen.
Others agreed that the United States deserves credit for heralding a new era in getting other major emitters to pledge carbon cuts, though some also noted that countries were headed in that direction. One European diplomat conceded, "I don't think the E.U. alone would have been able to pull that off." And a former major emerging nation negotiator whose country made a Copenhagen pledge said, "It certainly helped to have U.S. pressure."
Said Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, "They basically got the world to create what I think is a very good Plan B in the short term when it was clear that we weren't going to get a new Kyoto-style agreement out of Copenhagen."
'They acted just like Bush'
For many developing nations, though, Obama's failure in Copenhagen to deliver a treaty with a top-down target aimed at averting catastrophic warming to which all nations would be legally bound remains a bitter pill. Ensuing years, in which the United States made heavy demands on developing countries but made no move to show how it planned to meet its own target, rankled even more.
"I started out extremely hopeful that Obama would make a big change, and until the last minute in Copenhagen, I was expecting him to come up with something brilliant. But I was very, very disappointed. And since then, I've seen the Obama administration retrench," said Saleem Huq, a senior fellow at the U.K.-based International Institute for Environment and Development.
"In some ways it's almost as bad, if not worse, than the Bush administration, in the sense that the Obama people get it," Huq said, noting several scientists in the administration. "We all think of Obama and the Democrats as the good guys, but in the negotiations, they acted just like Bush. The only difference was that it was harder to criticize them than it was to criticize Bush."
The "no different from Bush" assessment doesn't just come from across the ocean. One former U.S. climate negotiator made similar, albeit kinder comparisons, insisting that unlike Bush, the Obama team sincerely cares about climate change and has been far more inclusive internationally. Still, the diplomat said, "The irony is that it doesn't actually translate into significant differences in policy."
Others bristle at the comparison. They point to the 54.5 mpg fuel efficiency standards, billions of dollars in stimulus spending toward renewable energy and pending EPA rules addressing climate change and industrial pollution. At the multilateral level, American activists defend the administration as successfully finding an imperfect but robust way to curb carbon under the weight of knowing Congress had rejected before and would reject again any treaty that did not put China on an equal footing to the United States.
"If you compare this to the Bush administration and even to the Clinton administration, what they've done is way more proactive in the international negotiating scene," said Jake Schmidt, international policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Fund.