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Posted on on July 26th, 2012
by Pincas Jawetz (

Obama could make climate progress internationally even if he’s hobbled at home.

By David Roberts

Photo by The White House.

What are the possibilities and prospects for action on climate change if Barack Obama is reelected?

Real talk: Obama will get very little done on climate or energy domestically, especially if Republicans keep the House, most especially if they win the Senate too. The reasons are drearily familiar: deep polarization, corporate influence, and the 60-vote threshold in the Senate. Unless some large and unanticipated exogenous force knocks the system out of equilibrium, we can expect more of what the first term delivered, which is modest (read: woefully insufficient) progress on efficiency and clean energy.

But I’ve been thinking lately that Obama might still be able to make progress on climate through foreign policy.

It’s clear that Obama sees climate as a legacy issue, something that could improve the world in an enduring way. In a recent piece on Obama’s second-term prospects, Ezra Klein said: “Beyond the deficit, Obama’s advisers see two big unfinished pieces of business from the first term: climate change and immigration reform.” On the campaign trail, Obama has mentioned, in the context of a second-term agenda, “the long-term challenges that we’re facing in terms of energy independence and climate change.” In a recent Rolling Stoneinterview, Obama said: “I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we’re going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way.”

But “legacy” and “long-term” are apparently not for the here and now, because as far as I know, he hasn’t mentioned climate change since, not even during the recent drought. He’s clearly not trying to make it part of his mandate in this election.

But! Presidents have a freer hand in foreign policy, and that’s where they often make their mark, particularly in a second term, as both Klein and Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker have pointed out. Both mention that Obama’s team anticipates a “pivot” or “rebalancing” away from the Middle East and toward the Asia-Pacific region. Climate could be part of that pivot.

Remember, in Copenhagen, Obama pledged that the U.S. would hit the near-term Waxman-Markey climate-change goal: 17 percent cuts in CO2 emissions below 2005 levels by 2020. The Waxman-Markey bill was never passed, but it turns out the U.S. is in fact reducing emissions— more than any other country in the world! Progress is being made. Admittedly, some of it, probably the bulk, has nothing to do with climate policy. Nonetheless, it gives Obama and the U.S. some rare credibility with which to try and reengage and reshape international climate work.

The situation internationally is similar to the situation domestically: For the time being, top-down Grand Solutions aren’t going to happen. The pathetic outcomes at Copenhagen and Cancun and Durban have made that clear. For all the exhortations from greens to lead, there’s only so much the U.S. president can do to generate consensus among the 192 nations of the UNFCCC.

What’s needed is for Obama to put bottom-up solutions at the center of his foreign policy. That means deals and treaties between states, regions, and other subnational entities. It means bilateral and multilateral deals among small groups of countries with common interests. It means, rather than one Climate Solution, a focus on the various bits and pieces of a solution: cities, sea-level rise, deforestation, solar manufacturing, carbon sequestration, and the like. Scholar David Victor has lots of ideas along these lines; check out my review of his book. His basic insight is that no international process or treaty can push nations beyond what they see as their own self-interest. So to at least get the climate ball rolling, we need to pay more attention to which aspects of mitigation and adaptation are in which countries’ interests.

There are plenty of measures that can take a bite out of climate while also creating near-term, local benefits. There’s a handy list of 14 of them in a recent paper in Science called “Simultaneously Mitigating Near-Term Climate Change and Improving Human Health and Food Security,” which focuses mainly on methane and soot. (David Biello has a nice write-up of the paper.) And of course growth in cleantech industries has both local and global benefits as well. There are plenty more places to look for win-win-opportunities.

This focus ought to fit neatly with the Asia-Pacific pivot. If the U.S. wants to build relationships in the region, we can do it by engaging on the knot of problems the region most desperately needs to solve: how to continue developing economically, bringing people out of poverty, without choking the air and water with poisons. How to grow local efficiency and clean energy industries that generate jobs and wealth. How to plan for unavoidable climate impacts. Focused on these challenges, America’s expertise and money can do good and create good will.

The current skirmish with China over solar subsidies and tariffs highlights the need for what Michael Liebreich referred to in our interview as a “global industrial policy.” The worst thing that could happen in clean energy is an escalating series of trade wars and protectionist barriers that play for short-term national advantage at the expense of global welfare. There is plenty of work to go around and dire need for low-cost low-carbon technologies. The U.S. should be working to find areas of economic cooperation, non-zero-sum games, that make the best use of each country’s unique strengths. Above all, the U.S. should be working with the region on innovation policy, coordinating and accelerating efforts to drive down the costs of cleantech.

International climate work badly needs a kick in the ass, a new sense of life and momentum. One more failed climate summit isn’t going to do it. If Obama wants to create a foreign policy legacy for his second term, he should focus on reorienting international climate policy toward mutually beneficial, bottom-up solutions. He should make America a catalyst, a constructive, creative force for practical progress on climate. It’s not the Kyoto-on-steroids global climate agreement greens want, but it could make a real difference, and I suspect historians — and future Earthlings — would look upon it kindly.


July 26, 2012, 11:34 AM 176 Comments

A Climate and Energy Stalemate

By JOHN M. BRODER,  In a New York Times Blog, July 27, 2012
A protest against construction of the Keystone XL pipeline last summer in Washington. In this year's election campaign, most of what passes for an energy debate is rivalry over which political party is more devoted to extracting oil and gas from the ground.
Associated Press  –  A protest against construction of the Keystone XL pipeline last summer in Washington.
In the current election year, most of what passes for an energy debate in the United States is  rivalry over which party is more devoted to extracting oil and gas from the ground or seabed.

On the day he clinched the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, Barack Obama declared that future generations would look back and say, “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” He made addressing climate change, domestically and as part of a concerted international effort, a central tenet of his campaign platform and a top priority of his first year in office.


The lagging United States response to climate change.

Then the president backed off, hamstrung by an economic crisis and implacable opposition from Republicans, who were cheered on and financed by their ideological allies and fossil fuel companies. International talks organized by the United Nations made  scant progress, not least because the United States was unwilling to accept a binding accord unless it required comparable emissions cuts by all countries regardless of their stage of economic development.

As Mr. Obama seeks re-election, a warming climate and its related challenges — more frequent droughts and wildfiresrising seas and more violent storms— are near the bottom of the national agenda. The Republicans, some of whom as recently as four years ago shared Democrats’ concern about a warming climate and advocated a market-based approach known as cap and trade to reduce climate-altering emissions, are nearly unanimous in questioning whether global warming even exists. Democrats, burned by the Senate’s rejection of legislation addressing climate change and wary of any policy that could be portrayed as raising energy costs, have fallen silent on the topic.

The public is divided, with fervent minorities at either end of the debate and a broad crowd in the middle that believes that human activity is altering the climate but remains conflicted over what government, corporations and individuals should do about it. Attuned to the public’s ambivalence, both political parties and their presidential candidates are playing down the climate issue. Instead, what passes for an energy debate in the United States is rivalry over which party is more devoted to extracting oil and gas from the ground and the seabed.

Over the new few months, we hope to jump-start a discussion about energy and climate policy in the United States. We’ll have experts weigh in and welcome readers’ opinions on broad questions that may be neglected on the campaign trail.

Is climate change a real and present danger? Why does the United States lag behind many other industrialized nations in addressing it? Do Americans need to reduce their energy consumption? Should there be limits to where and when and how they drill for oil, frack for gas and mine coal? How far should regulators go in trying to reduce air pollution and emissions of greenhouse gases? Should the federal government subsidize alternative sources of energy like the sun, wind and biofuels?

In campaigns past, those complex issues have been reduced to slogans like “Drill, baby, drill” or simplistic calls to eliminate the Energy Department or the Environmental Protection Agency. With your help, we’ll try to dig a little deeper.


But why wonder?  In the election campaign the two candidates, looking at the potential voters in those few critical States, do not even show  courage even when it comes to gun-control issues.


Candidates Cower on Gun Control.

Published: July 26, 2012

At a moment when the country needs resolve and fearlessness to reduce the affliction of gun violence that kills more than 80 people a day, both presidential candidates have kicked away the opportunity for leadership. On Wednesday, reacting to the mass murder in Colorado last week, Mitt Romney and President Obama paid lip service to the problem but ducked when the chance arose to stand up for their former principles.

That’s not terribly surprising in the case of Mitt Romney, who has built an entire campaign around an avoidance of specifics and a refusal to take unpopular positions. The governor who once showed mettle by banning assault weapons in Massachusetts told Brian Williams of NBC News that he now believes the country needs no new gun laws and no government action at all.

“Changing the heart of the American people may well be what’s essential,” Mr. Romney said, though he provided not a clue on how he plans to reach that heart and help reduce the nation’s tolerance of violence. He didn’t even seem to understand the gun laws that are in place, saying the Colorado shooter “shouldn’t have had any kind of weapons.” In fact, all of the shooter’s purchases, including an assault rifle, were perfectly legal in the state.

Though Mr. Romney expressed faith in the federal requirement for background checks before buying a gun, he didn’t acknowledge how porous the federal system is — largely by allowing unchecked sales at gun shows — and how much more effective tighter state regulations have been in restricting trafficking in places like California.

States with strict gun-control laws have significantly fewer firearms deaths, according to studies of federal data.Policies like banning assault weapons and requiring trigger locks and safe storage actually work, though few politicians can be heard advocating them.

In a way, President Obama’s remarks were even more disappointing because he fell far short of offering a solution even though he clearly demonstrated an understanding of the problem.

“For every Columbine or Virginia Tech, there are dozens gunned down on the streets of Chicago and Atlanta, and here in New Orleans,” he told the National Urban League convention. “For every Tucson or Aurora, there is daily heartbreak over young Americans shot in Milwaukee or Cleveland.”

But his plan to address the problem appeared to consist of summer jobs for young people and crime reduction programs in cities — perfectly fine ideas but much too weak to reduce the tools of urban bloodshed. He talked about enhanced background checks to weed out criminals and the mentally ill but said nothing about closing the gun-show loophole or the ease with which the mentally ill can get their gun rights restored. (The National Rifle Association insisted on making it easy, a position that the president could fight against without fear of significant opposition.)

The N.R.A. has even blocked federal studies on how to improve background checks, or the effect of high-capacity ammunition clips, as The Times found last year. At a minimum, the president could demand better research and solid data to help make the case for strengthened legislation.

Instead, Mr. Obama spoke largely in platitudes. AK-47s should be in the hands of soldiers, not criminals, he said. Well, yes. Automatic military weapons like the AK-47 have been banned since 1934, making any civilian who possesses one a criminal. The more pressing issue is semiautomatic rifles like the extremely popular AR-15 in combination with high-capacity clips, used by the gunman in Aurora to fire multiple high-powered rounds at moviegoers.

Both candidates once favored banning these kinds of assault weapons. What happened to their courage?

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