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For Which it Stands: Environment

On Climate Change, Obama walks a tightrope between domestic needs and global concerns

A trader carries fish to a wholesale market in Dhaka, Bangladesh July 3, 2008. Environment ministers from countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) have begun a meeting in Dhaka to discuss combating climate change in densely populated South Asia. (Andrew Biraj/Reuters)

SAN FRANCISCO — Bangladesh may be the place in the world most threatened by climate change.
A desperately poor population — half the size of the United States’ —  crams into an area a little smaller than Louisiana. With most of its territory within six yards of sea level, the country is uniquely vulnerable to rising seas and stronger storm surges.
If nothing is done, much of the country could go under water. Millions will be driven from their homes. Yet, the people of Bangladesh are among those least responsible for the greenhouse gases that could one day destroy their way of life. Very few of them drive cars, run air conditioners, or consume many factory-made goods. Many don’t even have access to electricity.
In contrast, the United States is relatively insulated from the early impacts of climate change. Far wealthier, we’re well-positioned to absorb shocks in the price of food, to adapt to disruptions in the weather, and to respond when diseases expand their reach. But as one of the most industrialized countries in the world, we’re disproportionally responsible for the warming of the world.
The typical American produces some 80 times as much carbon dioxide as the average Bangladeshi. Internationally, we’ve played a unique role in delaying action on global warming. For much of the past decade, when it comes to climate change, the United States has stood for denial.
That seems set to change. As a candidate, Barack Obama repeatedly promised a dramatic shift in the country’s approach. He declared he would place energy independence as one of his top priorities, pledging to invest $15 billion a year in energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy. An Obama administration, he said, would put the country on the path to reduce emission to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Most importantly, from a global perspective, he promised to take the United States back to the table on climate change negotiations.
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Since the election, Obama has given every indication he will make tackling global warming a top priority, placing scientists with histories of addressing climate change in top positions.
“Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all,” Obama told a gathering of U.S. state governors in a taped message in November, his most prominent mention of the subject to date.
“Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious,” he added.
But Obama’s task will not be an easy one.
Dealing with climate change will require walking a tightrope between domestic and international concerns.
By most estimates, China emits more carbon dioxide than the United States. By 2015, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, developing nations will produce more greenhouse gases than the industrialized world. It would be unfair, say those who oppose action on global warming, for the United States to agree to cut emission while rapidly growing, developing countries face no restrictions.
Indeed, when the Senate voted down the Kyoto protocol in 1998, it cited the exemptions of emission cuts for China, Mexico, India, Brazil, and South Korea as the major reason for its opposition.  
Yet, from the point of view of developing countries (and, indeed, much of the rest of the world), the U.S. stance seems churlish. Rich countries, they argue, have built their wealth on fossil fuels and should bear most of the burden in the battle against climate change.
China may produce more greenhouse gases than the U.S., but the average American is responsible for emitting at least four times what a Chinese counterpart does. In a global economy where carbon means energy and energy means wealth, for the Chinese to agree to an immediate emissions cap would mean acquiescing to poverty. Their citizens would drive one fourth as much as we do, leave on the lights one fourth as long, and generally be four times poorer—not because their economy is less capable of making them wealthy, but simply because when the world decided to do something about climate change, that's where things stood.  
Obama’s approach seems to be to step around this Catch-22 by concentrating on domestic rationale for action. In his address to the U.S. state governors, the president-elect focused first on the threat that climate change poses to the country’s economy and national security. His proposed plan to cap emission and invest in clean energy, he argued, would make the United States more secure, save the planet, and “steer our country out of this economic crisis by generating 5 million new green jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced.” Only at the end of his message did he mention the ongoing international negotiations on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.
Pushing through climate change legislation will be a challenge, but it will be a lot easier to convince Congress to vote on domestic concerns rather than international obligations. And if Obama steps up to the negotiating table with the promise of U.S. action, he will stand a much better chance of convincing other countries to shoulder their share. Then, with the U.S. already committed to cutting emissions, a treaty might just pass the Senate.
America would once again stand for responsibility.
(GlobalPost climate change columnist Stephan Faris' is the author of the new book Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley (Henry Holt and Co., 2008)