The only political move more quixotic than attempting to pass sweeping environmental legislation during economic boom times may be trying to do so in the middle of the biggest economic maelstrom in decades. But President-elect Barack Obama apparently is not dissuaded. At an international conference on climate change convened on Nov. 18 by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Obama told the audience in taped remarks that he intended to stick to the aggressive carbon-reduction targets he promised before the election, beginning with a federal cap-and-trade system that would put the U.S. on course to reduce emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020, then cut them by another 80% by 2050. He also reiterated a campaign promise to invest $15 billion a year in low-carbon energy, including solar, wind, nuclear and next-generation biofuels.
"Few challenges facing America and the world are more urgent than combating climate change," said Obama. "My presidency will mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs." (See pictures of Barack Obama's family tree.)
The move reassured doubtful green activists. Concern for the environment is traditionally the first thing thrown overboard when economic seas get rough. That's what appeared to have happened in June, when the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, the first national bill mandating greenhouse-gas emissions caps to receive a full vote in the Senate, went down in defeat, in part because critics exploited fears that the bill would raise already record-high energy prices.
Obama's green promise also sent an unvarnished signal to some of the most influential climate negotiators in the world including representatives for China and Indonesia, who will be vital in completing a new Kyoto Protocol that he intends to fight climate change head-on. And his statement may well buoy the flagging global momentum on climate change. The European Union, which has long led the world in aggressively addressing global warming, has lately gotten cold feet about its own ambitious carbon targets, with poorer members like Poland arguing that such goals are unaffordable in a depressed global economy. Big developing nations like China, India and Brazil, which will be responsible for the majority of future carbon emissions, have meanwhile remained reluctant to do much about climate change as long as the U.S. stays on the sideline. "Obama signaled to the world that there is a true recognition that the global challenge of climate change requires U.S. leadership," says Jake Schmidt, the international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Obama's support could further jolt some life into next month's annual U.N. summit on climate change in Poznan, Poland. The summit is a victim of awkward timing Obama has been elected, but representatives from President George W. Bush's Administration will still be in charge thus the real focus will be on next year's summit, in Copenhagen, when Obama will hold the reins and the world will face its self-imposed deadline to pass a new Kyoto Protocol. Green activists hope that Obama's plans for a national carbon cap will help break the logjam that has kept global climate talks largely frozen for years, including the debate over whether the U.S. or developing countries should move first. Bush has argued that a global climate deal is meaningless unless the big developing nations are required to take action, but China and India say they won't act unless the U.S., which has emitted more carbon into the atmosphere than any other nation, moves first. If Washington does manage to pass a national cap soon, Beijing and New Delhi may have little choice but to follow the leader.
Although Governor Schwarzenegger's summit was overwhelmed by Obama's wattage, other good news emerged. Representatives from Indonesia the third biggest carbon emitter in the world, thanks chiefly to massive deforestation announced that the country would accept "avoided deforestation" projects with partners in the U.S. These projects allow companies in developed countries to pay to preserve forests in rain-forest nations in exchange for the carbon credits contained within the saved trees. Indonesia has long been wary of the method, fearing that it would lose sovereignty over its sprawling forests, but the Nov. 18 announcement is a hopeful sign that the country will move to save the nearly 2 million hectares of forest it loses every year. "This is historic," says Tom Houston, managing director of Global Eco Rescue.
For all of Obama's green intentions, however, he can't pass carbon cap-and-trade legislation by fiat that will require Congress. Many congressional leaders, including some Democrats from coal-heavy states, remain doubtful about the benefits of mandatory carbon caps, especially with the U.S. drowning economically. One key signal will be the outcome of the battle for leadership of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. The contenders: Representative John Dingell of Michigan, who has defended Detroit from tougher fuel-efficiency standards and stood in the way of action on climate change, and the challenger, Henry Waxman of California, who scores high marks from environmentalists. (See pictures of Barack Obama's victory celebration in Chicago.)
The winner of that contest remains to be seen, but what's clear now is that the U.S. finally has a President who understands the fierce urgency of climate change. "Delay is no longer an option," Obama said. "Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious."