Tech & Science

U.S. Now the World's Climate Laggard

The hardest thing about being Barack Obama may be handling the high expectations of voters and world leaders. The gap between fantasies of Obama fixing all the world's problems and the reality of American politics is particularly wide on global warming. Even before leaders sit down at Copenhagen, where they are charged with forging a new agreement on climate, we know the summit will be a bust.

Most fingers are pointing to America as the spoiler. Just last month the alliance of developing countries threatened to walk out of the Copenhagen talks unless rich countries made firm, binding agreements for deep cuts in emissions. That issue has put America's climate diplomats in a tough spot because they don't want to make promises they can't keep. Meanwhile, even poorer countries like China and Brazil that were once thought too focused on other priorities have promised big changes in policies that affect warming gases. The gulf between what Obama's America offers the world and what the rest of the planet expects keeps getting bigger.

Obama himself is largely powerless to close the gap because the U.S. policy process is much more fragmented than that of any other major world power. Economic policies, like those needed to cut warming emissions, depend on Congress more than the White House. Getting the votes needed to pass both houses of Congress has gotten more difficult in recent decades as U.S. politics has become more partisan. And for expensive measures, like those needed for global warming, hard economic times compound the challenge. While the green coasts are likely to go along, the swing states of the more reluctant Midwest and South will determine what can be agreed. In these states, electricity comes largely from cheap coal, and the recession has hit hard, which guarantee that U.S. policy won't make much of a dent in emissions. With Congress distracted by elections next November and the war in Afghanistan, some political experts expect the Senate version of a climate bill, which is the main holdup in the U.S. policy process, won't get serious consideration before 2013.

Another problem for U.S. foreign policy will be managing the anger in other countries when they discover that the U.S. won't be able to join a binding treaty to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. No treaty can become law in the United States without support from two-thirds of the Senate, which includes many Republican senators. That just isn't going to happen. A March Gallup poll found 41 percent of Americans believed warming threats were exaggerated—and the gap between Republicans and Democrats on this issue has grown.

As the U.S. dithers, the rest of the world is ready to make much bigger and more reliable promises. The EU will cut emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and is poised to crank up its effort to 30 percent. For comparison, in the best case the U.S. Congress will pass a law that by 2020 brings American emissions back only to 1990 levels; deeper cuts will lie in the distant future. The EU is also the leader in organizing the money—by its guess about $100 billion per year, with perhaps one tenth from the EU itself—that will be needed to help developing countries pay for new technology and adapt to the nasty effects of a warming world. At best the cash-strapped U.S. Congress might offer $1 billion or $2 billion, and even those sums are unreliable. The rest of the cash, U.S. diplomats say, will come from carbon markets, but no lucrative carbon market can exist in the U.S. without a serious federal policy. The EU's carbon market is already the world's largest, and also the biggest funder of emission controls in developing countries.

Most impressive, nearly all the biggest developing countries will show up in Copenhagen with serious plans to regulate their emissions. China, the world's top emitter, is far along with a massive energy-efficiency drive, and it plans even deeper emissions cuts in the future. (Chinese emissions will still grow, as is normal for a country in that stage of economic development, but they will stay far below U.S. levels on a per capita basis.) Over the past four months India has offered a spate of new policies that will lower its emissions. Pragmatists who know India must play a more constructive role are now getting the upper hand in Delhi. Brazil and Indonesia have recently offered deep cuts in emissions through new policies that would reduce deforestation.

Obama will have a hard time influencing climate talks when the U.S. has put so little on the table. America's credibility gap will lead others to question whether the nation is a reliable partner on any front, and it might spell the end of the unipolar moment that has existed ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As a candidate, Obama fanned hopes that he would transform Washington. As he wrestles with the world's real problems, the trick will be to bring those expectations down to earth without a crash landing.

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