The Obama Factor

This column appeared in the Waikato Times on 17 February

Suddenly there appears to be hope. Barack Obama is definite: “The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all.” It’s climate change he’s talking about.

For eight dismal years the Bush administration refused even to acknowledge the threat, let alone take leadership in addressing it. Vested interests prevailed against the scientists who have come to understand what is happening to the climate. The US, alone of all the world’s nations once Australia left their side, refused to participate in even the modest Kyoto treaty and consistently tried to subvert progress towards any further binding international agreement.  This although they are responsible for more than 20% of the world’s CO2 emissions and have the highest per capita emissions of all the larger nations.

Has that all changed? Will Obama’s words be translated into effective action?  Early signs are positive. Consider just two of the key appointments he has made.  The new Secretary of Energy is Stephen Chu, a co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997.  His interest in energy has grown out of his concern about climate change.  He wants to move rapidly to renewable energy sources, and to see in the US a national grid which can carry wind- and solar-generated electricity to the population centres where it is needed.  In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times he said, “I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen. We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.” world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change.” Already Hillary Clinton in her forthcoming visit to China as Secretary of State is likely to be discussing ways in which the two countries can work together in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions through clean energy development. This would mark a big change from the sterile arguments about who should do what first which have so far marked the two countries’ exchanges on climate matters.

Many hopes are resting on President Obama.  None are of greater importance for the human future than this one.  So far it looks well founded.

23 thoughts on “The Obama Factor”

  1. Clinton’s visit to China is absolutely key. We cannot get a global deal on climate without US/China leadership. She’s taking a special climate envoy Todd Stern with her – a good sign.

  2. Yes Cindy. I would have made more of her visit if space permitted (and as it was the reference received a sub-editorial cut in the newspaper version of the column – the end of the page was approaching!) A quote from a Stern email to the NY Times: “Secretary Clinton is keenly aware that the United States — as the largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases — and China — as the largest emitter going forward — need to develop a strong, constructive partnership to build the kind of clean energy economies that will allow us to put the brakes on global climate change,” Mr. Stern said. “We need to put finger-pointing aside and focus on how our two leading nations can work together productively to solve the problem.”

    That sounds refreshingly unequivocal.

  3. Cindy is quite right.
    What will President Obama’s administration have to offer China to broker a deal ?
    China will not compromise her economic future (ie, stop building coal fired power stations) so will continue – it will be business/emissions as usual.
    The bargaining between the 2 will be fascinating.
    And how about India ?

  4. …further to the above…

    “…“So the dilemma that Canada faces, the United States faces, and China and the entire world faces is: How do we obtain the energy that we need to grow our economies in a way that is not rapidly accelerating climate change?” he said.

    “I think, to the extent that Canada and the United States can collaborate on ways that we can sequester carbon, capture greenhouse gases before they’re emitted into the atmosphere, that’s going to be good for everybody,” Obama added. “Because if we don’t, then we’re going to have a ceiling at some point in terms of our ability to expand our economies and maintain the standard of living that’s so important, particularly when you’ve got countries like China and India that are obviously interested in catching up.”

    …sequester carbon. How’s this done ? Interesting too, that President Obama has been investigating Canada’s oil sands (development which he acknowledges will leave a “big carbon footprint.”)

  5. Ayrdale, what the US has to offer China, if Stern is correct, is partnership in facing up to climate change – ie doing things together. This is something that hasn’t been offered before – the previous administration seemed more interested in pointing to China as a reason for doing nothing themselves. People keep saying that China will not compromise her economic future, but this assumes that no one in China understands the suffering that lies ahead for them if global emissions continue on their present trajectory. I’m sure that’s not the case. Thomas Friedman tackled this question in his book Hot, Flat and Crowded, reviewed here: He devotes a whole chapter to it and from his frequent visits to China concludes that China will follow a US lead. But he considers it intolerable that the US suggest that the Chinese do the hard work of greening their society without doing some hard work themselves.

  6. I attended a lecture yesterday where the UK speaker described China as a leader in the field of sustainability. They recognise that they can’t follow down the same unsustainable path of growth that the west has followed. Cheap energy won’t be there and climate change will be. They are already taking action as well as trying to raise their general standard of living.

    Perhaps the motivation is simply to be sure that the USA is doing something.

  7. “In 2006, the total of China’s CO2 emissions from fossil fuels increased by nine percent.

    In the USA in that same year, 2006, emissions decreased by 1.4 percent, compared to 2005. ”

    Yet I read in the NZ Herald today an allusion to a payment from the USA to the PRC of US$687billion. Some frigging partnership !

    And you say it’s “… intolerable that the US suggest that the Chinese do the hard work of greening their society without doing some hard work themselves.”

    In light of the above (decreased USA emissions) with great respect…what do you mean ?

  8. Ayrdale, I mean staged reductions in the US of 90% by 2050. I mean building no more coal-fired power plants in the US unless with CO2 sequestration. In regard to the partnership with China I mean recognising that per capita emissions in China are only a fraction of those of the US and that the historic US contribution to greenhouse gas build-up in the atmosphere is far ahead of China’s. After that I mean offering whatever assistance is appropriate in helping China to leap-frog at least some of the fossil-fuel path to development. It could also help to recognise that at least some of China’s emissions are in the service of out-sourced Western industry. Will that do for starters?

  9. China may be building new coal-fired power plants, but at the same time it’s closing the dirtiest. Companies are not allowed to build new ones if they don’t close the worst.

    It’s also installing, on average, one wind turbine every two hours – and has doubled its renewable capacity in the last year. Cars have better fuel efficiency than the US.

    In 1992, the US and the rest of the industrialised world agreed that they would go first in tackling emissions. And as Bryan points out, while China may be the biggest emitter today, the US is still responsible for around 30% of the man-made greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere

    For eight long years, the Bush administration has refused to take action, and developed a finger-pointing strategy at China – and it’s worked very well. Howard picked it up and ran with it – and the media has loved it.

    The Bush adminstration’s Kyoto negotiators have deployed a strategy of dirty tricks in the UNFCCC process… just to piss off China and the developing world. And it has worked. It’s going to be a long road back – Obama needs to reach out and rebuild the trust between the two countries – it won’t be easy.

    But the one thing we can’t do is compare the US and China as equals in this game – China, while rapidly industrialising, is still a developing country, and needs all the help it can get to shift to a low-carbon economy.

  10. Mmmm. interesting points Cindy.
    Any references to the fact that China is closing its dirtiest coal burning plants, and its use of wind turbines ?

    If as you say the US is responsible for 30% global carbon emissions, and is considering subsidising the PRC to the tune of US$687billion (NZHerald 19.2.09) then I wonder what financial contribution the rest of the world, ie, the EU, and of course Australasia, and Canada, not to mention the oil exporters of the Middle East, will make to the PRC (and of course India). Do we have any numbers for that ?

    Bryan said earlier (above) that it would be “… intolerable that the US suggest that the Chinese do the hard work of greening their society without (the USA) doing some hard work themselves.”

    Seems to me that Uncle Sam is working hard (and succeeding) to decrease his own emissions and demonstrating his usual generosity to the developing world.

    Seems also that not signing Kyoto was a sensible move, as of course Kyoto wouldn’t have even brought the PRC and India into the fold. Therefore of course they wouldn’t have any checks on their emissions at all…and today the PRC lead the world. And tomorrow ?

  11. Ayrdale asks

    Any references to the fact that China is closing its dirtiest coal burning plants, and its use of wind turbines ?

    For wind turbines check out the Global Wind Energy Council

    China added 6GW of wind power in one year…China still uses a lot of sub MW turbines but let’s guess that the mean turbine size is 1MW..that’s 6,000 turbines in a year and with 8,760 hours in the year that is about 1.5 per hour.

    That’s one to Cindy…I’m guessing she can fill you in on the coal.

    India was the third largest installer of wind power in 2008.

  12. Ayrdale, I’ve tried to track down this subsidy you talk about, but can’t find anything on the Herald website. Would you care to be more specific?

    But that apart, you seem to miss the point of my column, which is that Obama has anounced a new readiness on the part of the US to take climate science seriously and respond appropriately. To the quote I offered in the column he went on to add the words: “Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious.”

    I don’t think he would share your complacency about how well America has been performing.

    Gareth points out that China and India were part of the Kyoto protocol. Under that agreement many developing countries were excused from any requirement to reduce their emissions at this stage because it seemed reasonable that the developed countries should take the first steps. But that didn’t mean they weren’t part of the agreement or that their exemption would necessarily continue into subsequent international arrangements. As I said in the column the US is alone in not signing up to Kyoto. Obama doesn’t seem to share your opinion that this was sensible of them. His clear statement that America will be a positive participant in negotiations for the successor to Kyoto indicates a very different stance from that which has obtained over the past eight years.

  13. Ayrdale
    Here’s the coal reference
    – it was in a 2007 Pew Centre briefing.

    Cheers Andrew for the wind turbine reference – same calculation as I’d done.

    You might also want to look at a Tyndall Centre paper about the west exporting emissions to China. In 2004 net exports from China accounted for 23% of its emissions. The west is exporting its manufacturing sector to China (including NZ) and then turns round and points the finger. Can’t have it both ways!

    sorry for the lack of proper links i’m a bit rusty at it
    [cleaned up: GR]

  14. more for you Ayrdale
    just to get this right – the US isn’t responsible for 30% of emissions today – it’s an HISTORIC figure – the US is responsible for 30% of climate change we are already seeing today.

    In terms of financing the developing world to move to a low-carbon economy, to stop deforestation and adapt to climate change impacts, one calculation I’ve seen is that the money needed is around US$ 140 billion a year, from Annex 1 (industrialised – and some rapidly industrialising) countries to developing countries. This should be spent on three different areas: adaptation ($50 bn) , stopping tropical deforestation ($40 bn) and mitigation ($50bn – mostly energy efficiency and renewables).

  15. For an update on whether Obama’s words are being translated into action it is worth taking a look at Joseph Romm’s recent post on his Climate Progress Blog. He sees the first month in office as having already produced “nothing less than an unprecedented reversal of decades of unsustainable national policy”, and he enumerates nine steps within the US which substantiate this evaluation. Towards the end he adds as a further notable accomplishment the fact that Clinton made China and climate a core component of her first foreign trip.

  16. An update on Clinton’s China visit. The radio news this morning confirmed that climate change has in fact been part of their talks about cooperation. I heard a BBC reporter in China confidently predicting a day or two ago that climate change wouldn’t get a look in because of the urgency of the economic crisis. He was wrong. Clinton herself spoke of the two countries working together in the transition to low-carbon economies. Sounds like further evidence that the Obama administration really is serious about the issue.

  17. Thanks Cindy. I suspect it’s taking the reporting media a while to catch up on the possibility that the Obama administration means what it says about tackling climate change.

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