Editorial: They don't come greener than Obama

European critics are calling Barack Obama a traitor on climate change, but he's America's greenest president ever

Published December 7, 2009 3:08PM (EST)

Now Barack Obama is the guilty party, along with an America that is oil-dependent, consumerism-obsessed, superficial and detached from the world. The White House messiahs had promised a shift in climate policy, but 10 months later they still havn't pushed it through. Now, the United States is traveling to the global climate conference in Copenhagen without passing a climate change law.

The U.S. isn't delivering. President Barack Obama has -- or so you can read in commentaries -- "neglected" climate change policies, "betrayed" his claim to be a "citizen of the world," and has been "dishonest with Europe." When it came to climate change, he has "followed in the footsteps of his predecessor."

Bash Obama. That's the new style, the new tone. People have to vent their frustration. Disappointed lovers can be really bitchy.

The view that U.S. politics can't be anything but good and pure is one of the most beloved  clichés about the United States. But whenever reality scratches the idealized image of the U.S. as an exemplary guiding force in the world, there's a hail of criticism which is about as excessive as the messianic hopes that had been pinned to Obama. Superman Obama was expected to instantly erase 12 years of climate policy stagnation and immiediately catch up with Europe's effort to create a zero-pollution world. And because he couldn't accomplish all that in time, he's in trouble now.

But Obama is neither god nor king: He's a president. He may be the most powerful man in the world, but he is far from being the most powerful man in Washington. He lives in a country that adheres to the separation of powers and the principle of independent lawmakers. And there are special interests.

On the one side, there's the opposition that blocks anything Obama proposes -- regardless what it might be. Then there are the unions, always structurally conservative, who would rather save dying jobs than create new ones. Further, there are companies that view the unlimited burning of fossil fuels as a precondition for making profits.

Finally, there are also a number of states -- around 10 -- where all of these interests converge. The industrial makeup of these regions is similar to that of Poland, where the majority of electricity is derived from coal-fired plants. Should it be any wonder, then, that the favored environmental policies of these states is similar to those of Poland? Is it any surprise that elected Democratic officials from these regions harbor the same kind of positions one can still hear today in German labor organizations like the IG Metall metalworkers union?

In Germany, people like to see themselves as enlightened

Did anyone expect that it would be easy to burden companies and consumers in the U.S. with a bill totalling billions? In Germany, it's fashionable for people to consider themselves enlightened. They like to claim that they have a trading system for emissions, that air pollution is expensive and unprofitable in the long run. But a few words of caution are warranted. Germany's most important climate protection instrument is based on a European directive that had to be converted into national law. If members of the German parliament had been permitted a free debate and a free decision on the matter, they probably would have been put under the same kind of pressure and interests faced by their colleagues in the US today.

Thanks to Europe's democratic deficiency, they can now boast of their progressiveness. But even under these conditions, Germany sometimes runs out of breath. Take, for example, last year when the most recent version of the European Union's climate protection package was presented. It included a kind of subsidy program for the construction of new coal-fired power plants. Germany's "climate chancellor" no doubt had a role in that.

And even if Obama were to succeed in bewitching Congress tomorrow, his critics would still be far from pleased. After all, the draft legislation being considered there doesn't even come close to what those critics would like to see. They would claim that what Congress is currently debating is laughable.

But that depends entirely on the yardstick used to measure it. To catch up with Europe, the U.S. would have to accept the same emissions reductions targets as Europe for the year 2020. Because it is starting later, though, it would also require that those targets be implemented faster. More precisely: Twice as fast. It would be a Herculean endeavour. Put in other words: a chimera.

It would be fairer to compare what America and Europe plan to do in the future, once Congress has completed its legislative procedures. Then one could see that both continents are neck-and-neck in terms of climate policy, regardless what yardstick is used: costs, costs as a share of gross domestic product or the percentage reduction in emissions.

Obama's legislative backup plan

Among the most imaginative allegations against Obama are that the man isn't really interested in climate change, and that's why he is leaving the world in the lurch at Copenhagen. But just as a reminder: Shortly after his election, before he had taken office, Obama pledged that his government would shift America's course on climate change. In his economic stimulus package, $80 billion was directed toward green projects including improving the insulation of homes and the construction of modern power lines. Exhaust standards for cars were tightened. California's strict standards became the norm for the entire country, forcing European luxury carmakers to use more energy efficient motors in models sold on the American market than in Europe.

Under Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency has been given teeth again. In the event Congress fails to pass a climate bill, the agency is threatening to use regulatory avenues to introduce emissions trading.

If the climate bill fails, Obama plans to follow it up with an energy bill. And he appears to have a clear majority for it. The bill would include stricter emissions standards for power plants and stricter energy efficiency requirements for household appliances. Even without emissions trading, the measures add up to an impressive policy shift. Obama "did more in the first eight months of his term for climate protection than his predecessor did in eight years," wrote experts at the Green Party-aligned Heinrich Böll Foundation, not known for pussyfooting around when it comes to climate policy.

From day one, Obama has led his country back to the center of international climate diplomacy. The architecture of a future climate treaty is suddenly no longer contested between the trans-Atlantic partners. There is no longer any dissent over the scope of climate change and the threat it poses to mankind. There is also consensus on the view that all emissions sinners must do their part to reduce them as well as the opinion that industrialized countries must take the lead and provide support for developing nations.

Climate change is at the core of Obama's agenda

Obama has even put climate policies at the center of bilateral relations with India and China. In the meantime, he has also introduced an emissions cuts goal that US negotiators will take with them to Copenhagen. By doing so, the president is taking a risk domestically. During climate negotiations in Kyoto in 1997, the president also made a pledge that the Senate didn't want to back. For his part, Obama is now also relying on draft legislation whose passage isn't certain. He's doing so because he views climate protection as the core of his political agenda.

On Dec. 9, he will travel to Copenhagen to use his international prestige to try to make the conference a success. He will show the leadership the world expects of him. The Europeans have a choice: They can reconcile with Obama and, by doing so, increase the chances that a climate package will be approved by Congress. Or they can chide the U.S. for lacking ambition and thus risk a climate policy setback.

Either way, Obama has done all that was possible for a single person. He has become the greenest president his land has ever seen.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is the senior director for policy programs at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.


By Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is the senior director for policy programs at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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Barack Obama Energy Environment Global Warming