21 days to go: The role of the US

Countdown to Copenhagen: The President's lonely dilemma

In the fourth part of our series ahead of the UN climate summit, Michael McCarthy analyses the crucial role of the United States, the world's current superpower

A A A

Can the world reach a new deal to combat climate change without the world's richest country, the world's sole superpower? Such is the question looming over the Copenhagen climate change summit, now only three weeks away, as the international community waits anxiously to see if President Barack Obama can publicly commit the United States to action on global warming.

If he does, it may bring a global agreement in its train. If he does not, the chances of a worthwhile deal in Denmark are virtually zero. The decision is his. A lonely one, or what?

The US leader is caught in a nexus of political pressures, national and international, surrounding America's response to the climate question which have been building up for 12 years and now have to be resolved. Although he has made it clear he thinks the climate issue is vitally important, in the run-up to the Copenhagen conference he faces an acute dilemma: whether or not to promise specific American action on slashing greenhouse gases, in the shape of a target for cutting CO2 emissions by 2020, and finance to help developing countries before the US Congress, which would have to sanction such action, is ready to do so.

The rest of the world is looking to America for this, for several reasons. Until overtaken recently by China, the US had for more than a century been the biggest of all carbon emitters, producing in 1990 more than a third of the global total for less than five per cent of the world's population (it is currently responsible for something over a fifth).

It thus has an enormous historical responsibility for the CO2 which is already in the atmosphere. So do the other long-industrialised countries, including Britain – but America alone probably contributed about 30 per cent of the present total amount, and Edward Markey, a Democratic Congressman who is one of the leading figures behind the push for the US to act, said last week: "When the Chinese and Indians look up to the sky, they see red, white and blue CO2."

This historical liability was explicitly recognised in first global warming treaty – the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 – which laid down that, in responding to the climate problem, nations had "common but differentiated responsibilities". That meant that, five years later, when the treaty spawned the first agreement actually to cut emissions – the Kyoto protocol – it was the rich nations which agreed to do the cutting, while the developing countries were allowed to continue with business as usual.

At first, the US enthusiastically embraced Kyoto. At least, the executive branch did, in the shape of Al Gore, Vice-President in Bill Clinton's Democratic administration. Gore was one of the key players in sealing the deal in last-minute negotiations in the Japanese city in December 1997, agreeing that the US would cut its CO2 emissions to 7 per cent below their 1990 levels by 2012.

But when the details were examined by the US Senate, a very different view was taken. The deal was seen as a very poor one for the US, obliging it to burden its industry with expensive carbon-cutting measures, while China, a major competitor, was obliged to do nothing. The Senate declined to ratify the treaty. Worse, when George W Bush took office for the Republicans in 2001, he withdrew the US from Kyoto completely.

There followed eight years of what might be described as climate obstructionism, with the oil industry caucus at the heart of the Bush administration doing everything it could to deny the growing body of scientific evidence that climate change was a mortal threat and gathering speed, until the fourth report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 was so definitive that even the Bush White House felt obliged to accept it.

The next year, Barack Obama was back with the Democrats, and, throughout his presidential campaign, made it clear that he would act on climate, even giving a specific campaign pledge: he would seek to cut US emissions back to 14 per cent below their 2005 level by 2020. But when Obama took office, a shadow hung over that pledge: the shadow of Kyoto. The new administration was desperate not to repeat the miscalculation of Al Gore, and make an international promise which it could not subsequently deliver because the US Congress would not agree it.

So the Obama administration's attitude has been to let Congress take the lead on climate; and in this it has so far been fortunate. Two Democrat members of the House of Representatives, Henry Waxman from California and Edward Markey from Massachusetts (referred to above) introduced a climate bill in April, which would impose a yearly-tightening cap on US national carbon emissions, screwing them down to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, while bringing in an emissions-trading scheme as a way of making it happen. The Waxman-Markey bill was eventually approved by the narrowest of margins – 219 votes to 212 – on June 26 this year.

This was a landmark moment – the first time the American legislature had approved a measure to curb the expansion of greenhouse gases. It meant that America was firmly back in the business of dealing with the climate threat. But it was only half of what needed to be done, as, for a climate bill to become law, it has to pass through the Senate as well. So at the end of September, a climate bill was introduced into the upper chamber by Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, and Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California.

The Kerry-Boxer bill is broadly similar to the Waxman-Markey bill except that it proposes an even tighter target for US emissions cuts – 20 per cent on a 2005 baseline by 2020. But there is now no way it can complete its passage through the Senate before the Copenhagen conference, leaving Obama with an acute dilemma.

Does he put "US numbers", as the jargon has it, for emissions cuts and financial aid, on the negotiating table at Copenhagen off his own bat, before the Senate has agreed them? He is constitutionally entitled to do so, but, if he does, he may be seen by Senators as overstepping the mark and the legislation may fail to get through. "In the end, he can only deliver with Congress's support, and he cannot afford to undermine that," said Elliot Diringer, vice-president for international strategies of the Washington-based Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "He can only act if he is highly confident that he won't spoil the prospects of legislation."

But if he does not act, it is unlikely that other countries will agree to make binding commitments in the Danish capital. "Without the US numbers, the prospects for any agreement are low," Elliot Diringer said.

It's a vital, difficult and lonely decision – the buck stops on Obama's desk in the Oval office. And in the next three weeks, he has to make it.

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game