After a disappointing UN climate summit speech that expounded on the dangers of global warming but offered no new U.S. commitments to stop it, President Obama has one more chance this week to take charge as a climate leader as the international action moves to Pittsburgh for a two-day G20 meeting.
When Obama organized the Pittsburgh gathering of the world's wealthiest nations, he tasked the G20 finance ministers with developing a plan for rich countries to help developing nations deploy clean energy and adapt to climate change.
The divide between developed and developing nations over that funding has become one of the largest barriers to a new climate agreement at Copenhagen in December.
It also appears to be increasingly pushed down the G20 agenda, behind the global economic recovery and even bankers' bonuses. Rather than financing, President Obama has focused his G20 statements on a new proposal to phase out fossil fuel subsidies instead.
"It's time for heads of state to step up as world leaders and start putting adequate figures on the tables," said Barbara Stocking, CEO of Oxfam Great Britain, whose group is calling for a commitment of $150 billion a year for developing nations.
"We do not have the luxury of time with climate change. Too long have these negotiations been treated like trade talks, with countries watching out for their own individual interests."
World's Wallets Still Closed as Costs Rise
Wealthy nations promised in 2001 to provide the 49 least developed countries $2 billion for immediate climate change adaptation, but they only funded about a 10th of that. Since then, the UNFCCC has estimated the cost of global adaptation to be between $40 billion and $170 billion a year through 2030, and more recent studies now suggest the costs will be far higher — with the price growing each year the world delays action on climate change.
Developing nations are already feeling the pain, as Ugandan farmer Constance Okollet described to UN members this week. Okollet talked about hunger, death and cholera in her village amid increasingly extreme weather:
"I ask world leaders to help my community fight the climate change that destroys our houses, increases diseases and stops our children from attending schools," she said. "They must cut their emissions so that we can look forward to planting our crops without having to face floods that wash them away, or droughts that stop them growing at all."
At the UN summit, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for a $100 billion commitment from developed countries to help the developing nations like Okollet's. He urged the world to act immediately, "Not later, at another conference, in another decade, after we have lost 10 years to inaction and delay."
Wealthy nations have been slow to step up, though. The EU released the first proposal with solid numbers just this month, offering between $3 billion and $25 billion, less than initial drafts of the plan had discussed.
And the U.S. commitment? The Obama administration's has failed "to even acknowledge (much less ask Congress for) the kind of funding that will be needed to put the developing world on a low-carbon pathway," notes Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope.
Beyond the level of funding are serious questions about where the money will come from and how it will be managed: who will hold the purse strings, collect the money and divvy it up? Mexico has proposed a Green Fund with contributions possibly assessed by GDP, emissions levels, historic emissions or population. Switzerland suggested a $2 per ton global carbon tax. At a June climate meeting in Bonn, officials discussed raising funding through air travel and shipping fuel taxes or having wealthy countries set aside up to 2 percent of their GDP for funding.
"Leaders recognize that finance is key to a Copenhagen deal," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the UN summit this week. "There is little time left. The opportunity and responsibility to avoid catastrophic climate change is in your hands."
U.S. Becoming Impediment to Climate Treaty?
A climate financing deal is also the key to the Pittsburgh summit's success — and, by extension, Obama's, says Greenpeace Global Warming Campaign Director Damon Moglen.
"It is imperative that developed world leaders do not fail again in Pittsburgh. They must put money on the table to support developing countries" said Moglen, whose group is looking for a commitment by wealthy nations to invest at least $140 billion annually by 2020 to help the developing world adjust.
"It is also critical for G20 leaders agree to kick-start economic recovery through clean energy investment. Both of these elements are vital to achieve a good deal in Copenhagen and avert catastrophic climate change."
Greenpeace pulled out a reminder of that focus for summit participants yesterday, unfurling a giant banner off a downtown bridge that warned:
"Danger — Climate Destruction Ahead: Reduce CO2 Emissions Now."
So far, other countries are doing a far better job of heeding that warning than the United States, Moglen noted from Pittsburgh as a coal train rumbled by in the background.
The contrasts were evident at the UN summit, where Japan's new prime minister raised the bar for the industrialized world when he committed to cutting emissions 25% below 1990 levels by 2020.
Even Chinese President Hu Jintao took a leap forward, acknowledging for the first time that China had a responsibility to cut emissions and saying his country would establish "mandatory national targets" for high-emissions sources. He didn't set a specific level but vowed to "endeavor to cut carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by a notable margin by 2020."
Obama, for his part, spoke of the House-passed American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill, a concessions-laden bill that would cut U.S. emissions just 4% below 1990 levels by 2020. The Senate won't introduce its version until next week, and Moglen doesn't expect either to pass Congress this year.
"It was really unfortunate that the president continues the narrative that Congress is moving forward," Moglen said. "The climate bill in the Senate is dead, and they know it's dead.
"The real issue now is that Congress has failed and the fossil fuel industry is to blame, and the president has to lead now, he has to do what great presidents have done throughout history on what he himself has said is the decisive issue of our time."
Sierra Club's executive director was equally critical of Obama, saying that the president's speech to the UN "made it clear that the United States is emerging as the biggest obstacle to a successful climate summit in Copenhagen."
"The speech repeated the president's previous policy commitments but failed to call on Congress to make a decisive break with the energy policies of the past. The president did not address the chasm between what the U.S. has offered to date and what the science — and the world — are asking us to do," Pope said.
"Reading between the lines, it's clear that the president wants to do more, but that he's not yet ready to make a decisive move and throw his political capital into the game. Saying, 'One committee has already acted on this bill in the Senate and I look forward to engaging with others as we move forward' is not the kind of signal that will light a fire under the obstructionists."
Obama has two and half months left to get personally involved in steering the U.S. toward a science-based, effective climate law. If Congress fails and the president doesn't come up with commitments close to what the science calls for — emissions 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 — then Moglen fears "the U.S. will be identified as the impediment to the historic agreement and it's going to be isolated the way the Bush administration was isolated."
"You now have a growing cluster of developed countries, mainly European Union, who have committed to 20 to 30 percent," Moglen said. Combined with small island and least developed nations calling for even more ambitious commitments from world leaders, "what you begin to see is a large number of countries clustering around a series of ambitious goals, including science-based intermediate targets for 2020."
The world isn't waiting for President Obama to lead the way on climate change any more — that's a positive sign for preserving the world as we know it for future generations, but it's not so great for the U.S. reputation or Obama's legacy.
So what's it going to take to turn this ship around? Greenpeace says millions of Americans have to tell the president to take charge of this issue, because it does matter for their children's and grandchildren's futures, as well as for the future of the U.S. economy.
"I have faith that this is a vibrant, dynamic intelligent president who understands the importance of this issue," Moglen said. "I believe he can stand above the petty politics and industry interests."
"This decision will be the criteria by which Obama's presidency will be judged in the history books."