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Destination Doha? A climate roadmap for Obama

Written by Tom Mitchell

As Barack Obama returns to the White House he might well reflect on what got him over the finishing line.

His thoughts may turn to the Mayor of New York and former Republican Michael R Bloomberg, who felt compelled to endorse the incumbent in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Bloomberg said that Obama was the better candidate to tackle global climate change, stating that ‘while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of [climate change], the risk that it may be – given the devastation it is wreaking – should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.’ 

So let us just imagine that Bloomberg was partly responsible for Obama’s re-election and the second-term Obama administration feels obliged to lead the charge on tackling climate change. With the US electorate more convinced and the science clearer than ever, what should be Obama’s  six-point climate plan?

  1. Go to Doha and inject some excitement. The United Nations climate change negotiations start again in three weeks in Qatar. The process is desperately in need of a pick-me-up – it could be transformed by an appearance from Obama and a genuine show of willingness to get an ambitious deal done in 2015. To do this, he will need to convince sceptical parties that the US is willing to sign up to a legally binding and aggressive emissions target. This would change the whole dynamic of the negotiations. He can go to Doha with a spring in his step – US emissions are down and he is on track to meet his Copenhagen Accord pledge of a 16 per cent reduction below 2005 levels by 2020. Domestic progress now needs to be matched with long-term, binding targets to 2050 that will give others confidence to follow.
  2. Commit to climate-finance contributions up to 2016. Current commitments to ‘fast-start’ climate finance for developing countries run out in December 2012. The next target is US$100bn per year by 2020, but there is no indication of what might happen in between. The President could transform this conversation by committing the US to bold spending from public sources on international climate finance up to the end of his administration. He should also say that much of this money will flow through the Green Climate Fund when it is ready to start spending, and reassure us that a good proportion of this spending will be in addition to overseas development aid. That would be likely to spark a major European rethink on its level of climate finance and the relationship between climate finance and aid. While significant contributions from the US may seem politically challenging in times of economic hardship, this is put in perspective when compared to the potential investment of over US$20bn in New York City flood defences.
  3. Enact bold domestic climate-change legislation. Obama has some notable successes in his first term – fuel economy standards, increases in renewables as part of the energy mix, and serious investment in green energy, but he also failed to deliver  the climate bill. Progress can be protected in part by bold legislation that sets down emissions targets in the statute books and provides a mechanism for achieving those targets. A climate-change bill, and a determination to build a narrative that shows reduced fossil-fuel dependency is good for business, would be a start. 
  4. Stop pretending that the shift to shale gas is good for climate change. While US emissions might be down as a result of the dash to gas and the collapse of the US economy, more US oil is being exported and burnt elsewhere, meaning that net global emissions may actually rise. Obama has claimed that he will create 600,000 jobs in the natural-gas industry in his second term, but he should only pursue this policy if he can be sure that global net emissions will be reduced as a result.
  5. Make disaster resilience a national priority. The evidence shows extreme weather is more likely. Some of the US zest for combating security threats and terrorism should be focused on preventing disasters both at home and overseas. This will mean investing in infrastructure, technology, ecosystems and people’s capacity to adapt as well as cutting global greenhouse gas emissions.
  6. Indicate that the US is ready to support Global Development Goals that include environmental targets. The process of identifying new goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals in 2015 is already underway. Many middle-income and rapidly developing countries believe that extreme poverty cannot be ended without serious commitments from richer countries to stop environmental damage. They are right – US willingness to sign up to environmental targets could influence UK Prime Minister David Cameron, appointed by the UN Secretary General to help lead this process, to add a climate diamond to his golden thread.
Past US climate politics suggests this plan is rather far-fetched, but there should be no other choice for the President given doomsday predictions of the future. If the goal is to maintain the security of the American people and give some hope to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the President must show the kind of leadership that would put him amongst the all-time greats.