The U.S. had failed to be a world leader in fighting global warming—until this week.
President Obama’s new climate-change plan, which he unfurled at a speech at Georgetown University, is a messy, second-best affair. It comes only after he failed to move an economy-wide climate-change bill through Congress, and, at its core, the plan relies on a top-down executive mandate to force cuts of carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. It will face legal challenges, cost jobs in coal country, and galvanize his political opponents, from Republicans to the fossil-fuel industry.
But bypassing Congress and using the unpopular tool of executive action also positions Obama to do what no president before him has been able to—show up at the global climate-change negotiating table with a credible, concrete action plan in hand, one that he can use to force action from other nations.
In the past, even when U.S. leaders have had the best of intentions at global climate talks, they have failed to deliver on their promises. That’s because those pledges have relied on action from Congress, which has failed to follow up. In 1997, Vice President Al Gore was hailed as a climate leader at the United Nations summit in Kyoto, Japan, when he signed the historic Kyoto Protocol, the world’s first binding global climate-change treaty. But his credibility took a nosedive after he came home and the Senate voted not to ratify the treaty—ensuring that the U.S., the world’s biggest economy and largest historic global-warming polluter, would not be able to take the lead in combatting the problem.
Obama fell into the same trap in 2009 when he showed up at the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, at which nations hoped to forge a true follow-up treaty to Kyoto, one that would include real action from all the major economies. Obama pledged that the U.S. would act—the Senate would soon pass a sweeping climate bill, he said—and standing on that pledge, he attempted to muscle China and India into signing on to binding emissions cuts.
At the time, a Chinese negotiator shared with me his skepticism about Senate passage: “There’s no way Harry Reid will get 60 votes for that,” he said then.
He was right, and Obama’s promise of action from Congress was proven wrong. Senate Majority Leader Reid couldn’t even get all the Democrats in his chamber to vote for the bill, and he abandoned the effort.
Now comes round three, with the clock running out on U.S. credibility—not to mention the planet. The U.N. has scheduled a global climate summit in France for December 2015, at which world leaders will attempt, once again, to forge a meaningful, legally binding climate-change treaty committing them to fundamentally changing their economies, moving away from fossil fuels, and cutting carbon pollution enough to save the planet from an average temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius, at which point scientists say we’ll see a devastating surge in sea levels, debilitating droughts, deadlier storms, extreme water shortages, and more.
There’s no way the U.S. can walk into the talks with only a shaky promise of future action by Congress. That’s why Obama’s new plan, as inadequate as it may be as a piece of domestic policy, could allow him to fundamentally change global policy on climate change. It’s clear from the timetable Obama laid out in his speech earlier this week that that’s what he intends to do. The president said the Environmental Protection Agency will release a draft climate-change rule on cutting pollution from existing coal-fired power plants by June 2014, finishing the rule in June 2015.
That will arm U.S. negotiators with a concrete action to bring to the table when they head to a presummit meeting in fall 2014, at which nations are expected to offer up their bids and set the table for a final agreement in 2015, just as the EPA rule goes online.
“This can show the U.S. is delivering on its goals,” said Michael Levi, an energy- and climate-policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It gives the U.S. credibility, whether on getting a binding treaty or getting more juice to pursue an international strategy.”
Analysts say that the executive action takes away the excuse other countries have long used for sitting on their hands. Specifically, the move could ramp up U.S. leverage in its push to extract climate concessions from China, now the world’s largest global-warming polluter. “This will put a lot more pressure on China,” said Ailun Yang, an analyst with the World Resources Institute, a think tank.
Europeans are also encouraged. France, as host of what it hopes will be a historic summit, has been watching Obama closely. “What makes a difference is that he’s no longer delaying,” said a French official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the French government had released a separate formal statement about Obama’s speech. “Had he not moved now, it would have been quite clear that the U.S. would not be in a position to do something meaningful in 2015. It gives credibility, for sure. Everyone’s trying to make a calculation about how the U.S. is going to act: If the Americans are serious about it, everyone else has to be, too. It kick-starts the international discussion.”
Opponents of U.S. climate action often point out—correctly—that if Washington moves to cut its emissions but no one else does, it won’t be enough to stop serious global warming. But in the eyes of the rest of the world, action is impossible without a move by the world’s largest superpower. Obama’s climate plan faces many hurdles; it could be delayed or felled in the courts. But if it stands, it could trigger change on a global scale.