One effect of the new Obama administration's global charm is that America could be let out of the environmental doghouse. The Obama plan to restart the economy is stuffed full of green incentives, and the new president has earned global cheers for his promise to cut the gases that cause global warming. But hope and change are not easy to implement in Washington, and the first big disappointment is likely to come later this year when the world's governments gather in Copenhagen to replace the aging and ineffective Kyoto treaty.
Pundits have been talking down the Copenhagen summit on the theory that the current financial crisis makes 2009 a tough time for governments to focus on costly and distant global goals like protecting the planet. In reality, the greenish tinge on nearly every economic recovery plan, even China's, show that this crisis offers green opportunity. The real reason Copenhagen will be a disappointment is that the new Obama administration can't lead until it first learns what it can actually implement at home. And delivering greenery in the American political system is harder than it looks—even when the same left-leaning party controls both the White House and Congress.
On environmental issues, America is barely a nation. Under a single flag it uneasily accommodates a host of states pushing greenery at wildly different speeds. In the 1970s and 1980s, this multispeed environmentalism propelled America to a leadership position. The key was truly bipartisan legislation, which allowed Washington to craft a coherent national approach. In fact, most of the major U.S. environmental laws did not arise solely from the environmental left but were forged by centrist Republican administrations working closely with centrist and left-leaning Democrats. Republican President Nixon created America's pathbreaking clean air and water regulations; Republican George H.W. Bush updated the air rules to tackle acid rain and other pernicious long-distance pollutants. In his more moderate second term, Ronald Reagan was America's champion of the ozone layer and helped spearhead a treaty—probably the world's most effective international environmental agreement—that earned bipartisan support at home and also pushed reluctant Europeans to regulate the pollutants.
Ever since the middle 1990s—about the time that the U.S. government was shut down due to a partisan budget dispute—such broad coalitions supporting greenery have been rare. In the vacuum of any serious federal policy, for nearly a decade the greener coastal states devised their own rules to cut warming gases. The United States as a whole let its green leadership lapse. (At the same time, the project to create a single European economy has shifted authority in environmental matters from individual member states into the hands of central policymakers in Brussels, where a coterie of hyperrich and very green countries have set the agenda. Europe, long a laggard on environmental issues, is now the world leader.)
The normal multispeed script was playing out on global warming as the Obama administration took power. Industry, worried about the specter of a patchwork of regulations, has lobbied for a coherent national strategy. But the Obama administration's first major policy on global-warming policy went in precisely the opposite direction: he reversed the Bush administration's decision that blocked California from adopting its own strict rules on automobile efficiency.
Today's challenge, which won't be solved by Copenhagen, is for Obama to stitch these many state environmental efforts together. That's no easy task. Global-warming regulation will probably have a larger impact on the nation's economy than any other environmental program in history, and any plan will have to allow enough room for some states to move quickly while also satisfying industry's well-founded need for harmony. Obama's Democratic Party controls both the White House and Congress, but that does not guarantee success. It will be difficult to craft a national policy that earns broad and bipartisan support while also taking the big bite out of the emissions that the rest of the world is hoping Obama will promise to the Copenhagen treaty. The difficulties aren't just in dragging along wary conservative Republicans. In fact, the most important skepticism about an aggressive national strategy has been from a coalition of centrist Democrats who fear the impact on jobs and economic growth.
One key to success will be crafting a deal with China and other developing countries to show that they, too, are making an effort. But serious efforts on that front are still in their infancy.
The big challenge for Copenhagen will be to find a way to allow negotiations to stretch beyond the unrealistic 2009 deadline while still keeping momentum. America's slowness in getting serious about global warming should be welcome because it is a contrast to its rushed behavior in negotiating the Kyoto treaty. At Kyoto, Bill Clinton's administration promised deep cuts in emissions without any plan for selling them at home, which is why the Bush administration could so easily abandon the treaty. Repeating that mistake would be a lot worse than waiting a bit for America to craft real leadership. If that's why Copenhagen falls short of the mark, then that's good news—real greenery, rather than fakery.