EU cautious about new Obama climate policy buzz

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The EU has reacted coolly to speculation about a potential new direction in US climate policy during President Barack Obama’s second term.

Environmentalists say that Obama is considering a climate change summit in the White House, and EURACTIV understands that US State Department officials expect a significant statement on climate change, imminently.

This could be made either by Obama in his State of the Union address in early February, or by Secretary of State-nominee John Kerry in his confirmation address shortly before.

But a senior EU official's lead reaction was merely that Brussels would be “closely watching what is said in those statements”.

“It is very clear that what happened in New York – and with last year being the warmest on record in the US – is going to fuel the discussions on climate change, and provide more momentum for this debate, but we’ll have to see how it is translated into policy,” he told EURACTIV.

European policymakers are cautious about Obama’s intentions after limited progress at a United Nations climate summit in Doha in December, and the president’s dismissive reaction to an EU suspension of plans to include international airlines in its Emissions Trading System (ETS).

“You will remember that there was once a hurricane called Katrina that also led to big discussions [about global warming] so only time will tell,” the EU source said. “A single swallow doesn’t make a summer.”

Climate change barely figured in the recent US election, but Obama raised some expectations of policy movement with a poll-night victory speech, signaling a desire to protect future generations from “the destructive power of a warming planet".

The president faces a Republican-dominated US House that has consistently blocked moves to stronger climate action, and powerful energy-intensive interests opposed to environmental legislation.

But his pick for US foreign affairs chief, John Kerry is a professed climate action enthusiast, who unsuccessfully tried to push a bill establishing a ‘cap and trade’ carbon market through the US Senate, and a mood for action is tangible.   

Broad-based political coalition

On 5 January, Washington’s chief climate change negotiator, Todd Stern, said that Obama was looking to build a broad-based political coalition capable of mobilising the environmental sentiment created by Hurricane Sandy’s traumatic path through New York last October.

“You can’t get much done without public opinion on your side, but there’s not much you can’t accomplish if the public is with you,” Stern added. “That is true for climate change as well.”

An early spring conference is reportedly planned to explore ways of using "limited public funds" to leverage hundreds of billions of private sector dollars for climate aid.

Obama’s staff believe that a change in climate policy is impossible without pressure being brought to bear on the US Congress from a political coalition mobilised outside Washington, EURACTIV understands. 

As the president does not need to stand for re-election, a legislative opportunity is seen if Obama can successfully steer a consensus-building debate now.

Coalition building

“The Obama Administration needs to build a political coalition in the US to find out what’s politically possible on climate, because nothing is going to happen in Congress without political support,” one Brussels-based diplomat said, adding that a parallel consensus accommodating pro-growth sentiment in the developing world was also needed.

But on the international stage, the US is still viewed as being in a transitional phase between the Kyoto rejectionism of the Bush years and a global consensus that goes much further.  

“I would like to leave Obama a little more time to be more precise on his climate policy,” said Bo Kjellén, Sweden’s former chief climate change negotiator. “You cannot command progress”

“But the point with regard the 2-degrees Celsius target is that we don’t know how much time we have,” he told EURACTIV.

Long-term indicators

Long-term indicators suggest that a sea change in transatlantic thinking is under way, with the State Department and US military both now treating climate change as a national security issue.

Republican think tanks too have recently begun advocating a carbon tax, albeit one to be offset by other tax cuts for high-earners.  

Yet in international negotiations, Washington continues to push for a ‘flexible’ replacement to the Kyoto Protocol, branding as ‘unworkable’ approaches based on binding emissions reductions by the countries most historically responsible for them. 

Instead, the US proposes allowing all nations to make agreed voluntary commitments to an agreed goal – such as keeping atmospheric CO2 concentrations below 450 parts per million (ppm), the 2 degrees trigger point. They are currently at 391 ppm, and rising by nearly 3ppm a year

US diplomats hope that a "menu of options" can emerge from the Major Economies Forum (MEF) which brings together 20 of the biggest emitting countries, that could in turn be fed back into the UNFCCC process.

Such a position may be the most that the Obama administration feels it can currently sell domestically, but it still falls below the minimum that many in the developing world are prepared to accept.

“Obama needs to capitalise on the greatest awareness of climate change in years, and transform the US into an enabler for greater climate action as opposed to dragging the rest of the world down into a race for the lowest ambition,” Lies Craeynest, the economic justice policy advisor for Oxfam told EURACTIV.

Congresssional mid-term elections

Some analysts hope that House and Senate mid-term elections in 2014 will change the Washington power balance but EU sources warn that there is no guarantee.

Rather, they say, the focus must remain on the 2015 deadline agreed at December’s Doha Climate Summit for a new legal framework to inaugurate a second round of emissions cuts in 2020.

“We have to start the serious talk this year, not only with the US but also with emerging economies and other industrialised nations,” an EU official said. “We can’t wait until after the mid-term elections to talk about the 2015 agreement.”

In the meantime, environmentalists are on tenterhooks ahead of a State Department environmental impact assessment of the stalled Keystone XL pipeline that would bring tar sands from Canada to the US.

The paper is expected within months and Kerry’s decision on whether to approve the project will be another sign of the new administration’s environmental direction.

Kjellén said that he most hoped to hear a declaration of the importance of an active global climate policy in Obama’s State of the Union address, and possibly creating further incentives for investment in renewable energy.

But in an echo of Stern’s words, he pointed to the growing significance of forces outside of Capitol Hill in providing ballast to climate efforts.

“It is very important that NGOs and researchers and anyone engaged in the climate issue continues to keep up the pressure,” he said.

The scientific consensus that humans are responsible for global warming is now compelling with over 90% probability, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN-backed scientific body.

Some 97%-98% of the world's scientists think it is "very likely" that global warming is caused by man-made activities, according to a survey published in the National Academy of Sciences in 2009.

Climate science has evolved greatly since the 1970s and models take into account carbon dioxide concentrations, solar radiation, land surface, ice sheet cover (and reflectivity), deserts (which also reflect radiation), forests (which absorb  CO2), ocean currents, and more.

But uncertainties remain surrounding the extent of future temperature rises and the effects they will have on the Earth’s complex ecosystem. In large part, these will depend on measures taken now to keep greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million of CO2 equivalent.

  • 2013-2020: Fund-raising due to begin to capitalise the Green Climate Fund.
  • September 2013: Next regular meeting of the ICAO Council.
  • By Oct. 2014: IPCC to deliver fifth scientific assessment of climate change.
  • 2014: US mid-term elections
  • 2015: UNFCCC nations slated to agree a successor deal to Kyoto
  • 2020: New Climate treaty due to come into effect

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