Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A climate for change and leadership

Within a matter of hours, Barack Obama will become the 44th president of the United States. When that happens he will inherit major economic and environmental problems. These issues are not just U.S. concerns. The whole world is anxiously awaiting the Obama presidency.

Ironically many European Union political leaders believe that, given the current economic tailspin, President Obama's political will to address climate change may outstrip the will of the people.

Talk about change. (GW)

EurActiv.com - Will Obama outgreen Europe? | EU - European Information on Climate Change
Will Obama outgreen Europe?

19 January 2009

While the EU 27 worked towards the adoption of groundbreaking climate change legislation in 2008, US President-elect Barack Obama made ambitious commitments to tackle global warming during his presidential campaign. Ahead of international talks on a post-Kyoto climate deal, EurActiv asked experts whether Obama will outgreen Europe.

The question provoked mixed responses, with some interviewees confident that Obama can and will outdo the EU's climate and energy policies, and others considerably less optimistic.

Experts on both sides of the Atlantic agreed that the US had fallen behind Europe during the Bush presidency. Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, senior director for policy programmes at the German Marshall Fund, noted that "the US has fallen far behind in its entire legislative apparatus that deals with energy efficiency and the carbon economy," while Avril Doyle MEP, the European Parliament's rapporteur on the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme (see EurActiv LinksDossier), said "George W. Bush dropped the ball completely on this issue when he came to power".

However, there was also recognition that pre-Bush, the US was a world leader in innovative green policies. Kleine-Brockhoff noted that "the instruments that the EU is suggesting are American, from an era when Americans were the innovators in this field, so the EU toolkit should not be alien to the US". Doyle indeed recognised that the "original cap-and-trade system in relation to sulphur dioxide is a US creation".

Monica Frassoni MEP, co-president of the Greens in the European Parliament, said "the political climate is right" for bringing in a strong green package in the USA, a point of view shared by John Bruton, EU Ambassador to the USA, who likewise believes the "political will is there".

However, doubts persist as to whether a similarly forceful popular will is in place. Esther Bollendorff, a climate and energy expert at Friends of the Earth Europe, said: "Even though Barack Obama will bring political change in terms of environmental policy, I don't believe that he will be able to change Americans and their lifestyles, at least not during this mandate." She argued that "the American mentality is strongly consumption-orientated and people believe that natural resources, water for example, are unlimited and can be used with no restrictions".

Bruton, likewise, noted that "getting popular support for strong green policies is going to be difficult given the current state of the US economy".

Kleine-Brockhoff presents two potential scenarios in the build-up to a global agreement in Copenhagen next December. One is a "virtuous cycle" whereby, having dealt with the bail-out package and the stimulus bill, Obama could give a presidential address on climate change in the spring, followed by legislation tabled on the Hill [US Houses of Congress] and a roadmap for American climate change policy presented at Copenhagen.

The second scenario is a "vicious cycle" whereby the economic crisis takes precedence over everything else, and bail-out packages become an all-consuming effort for Congress. This, in turn, diminishes the willingness of lawmakers to engage on climate change issues, and as a result both Obama's presidential address and the proposals by Congress would be weak, leading to failure in Copenhagen.

Kleine-Brockhoff concluded by highlighting the important role European leaders can play in supporting Obama. "It is in the interests of all to find agreement in Copenhagen, and responsible politicians will take the necessary steps to reinforce a virtuous cycle," he said.


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