Obama promise and Cameron fears: a week in climate politics

On Monday, Barack Obama appeared to put climate challenge at the heart of his plans for the next four years. On Wednesday, David Cameron’s challenge to the European Union, calling for reform and threatening a referendum on British membership, put European climate change cooperation in jeopardy. Depending on how international talks develop in the years that follow, this week may be remembered as a historic one, though perhaps not for the right reasons.

Is hope renewed for Obama's second term?

Is hope renewed for Obama’s second term?

The media as been awash with analysis of Obama’s’ second inauguration speech and the prominence of climate change has been a recurring theme. Michael McCarthy wrote in the Independent that Obama had “sparked new hope” for tackling climate change, while Damian Carrington blogged for the Guardian that the President was “reinvigorated in his determination.” The excitement is understandable: of the 2,094 words of Obama’s speech, 160 were concerned with a significant commitment to climate change policy.

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment [sic] of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.

“The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries, we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

(Full text available here)

These are strong words indeed and it is worth printing them in full. The section includes a challenge to climate sceptics, passionate reference to superstorm Sandy, a desire to lead the world in building a ‘green economy’ and an overarching them of the legacy left to posterity. As others have noted, no other policy area mentioned in the speech received the same consideration as climate change policy.

Of course, these words are empty vessels if action does not come quickly. As we known from the fiscal cliff debate, an obstructive Congress filled with sceptical Republicans will make passing legislation the political equivalent of running through treacle. While he whipped the inauguration day crowd into an ecstatic frenzy in 2009, the President promised to “harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories”. Yet, the USA has hardly been decisive in climate policy over the last four years.

However, if we do ‘hope’, as the iconic 2008 Obama poster cried out, the USA’s potential for creating global change is enormous. Domestically, a bold decision on the Keystone pipeline would set a marker for new standards in a green America, while harnessing the US economy to expand the renewable energy would see vast growth at home and act as a showcase for the world. On the diplomatic stage, the President can lead the charge for the next global climate treaty, hopefully formalised in France in 2015.

If he liaises closely with new Chinese Premier, Xi Jinping (who he is yet to meet since the Chinese’s election in November), the world’s two biggest carbon emitters (China emits 21.3% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and the USA  emits 19.0%) could carve out an agreement which would have the single largest impact on the planet’s carbon inundation(1). 

Unfortunately, the promise outlined in Obama’s speech – if it holds true – could be quickly undone by the possible fragmentation of European environmental legislation.

The Prime Minister's gamble on Europe might threaten EU climate policy

The Prime Minister’s gamble on Europe might threaten EU climate policy

In the belated speech on Wednesday morning, ahead of his departure for Davos, David Cameron outlined the Conservative Party’s policy on the EU for the next five years. The Conservative manifesto for the 2015 general election will include a promise to seek  “a more flexible, adaptable and open European Union”. In an effort to appease Eurosceptics in his own party and voters who might be seduced by the siren call of UKIP, the Prime Minister said that if he could not secure a sufficiently revised treaty by 2018, he would put an in-out referendum to the British people.

Leaving aside the holes in his proposal (there was no suggestion of what the requisite changes might look like, example), the speech did set out a democratic and reasoned plan. The British political discourse is dotted with frustrations over unwelcome European involvement in domestic affairs and the British population deserve to be consulted after 37 years.

Yet, there is a danger that these revisions could jeopardise the EU’s firm commitment to environmental policy. In Wednesday morning’s speech, the Prime Minister stated: “In the same way we need to examine whether the balance is right in so many areas where the European Union has legislated including on the environment, social affairs and crime.”  The fear is this ‘examination’ might pander to MPs less inclined to support climate change measures. That afternoon, at Prime Minister’s Questions, he added: “There is a whole series of areas—social legislation, employment legislation, environmental legislation—where Europe has gone far too far.”  We can get worried now.

One of the great advantages of a coordinated Europe is the ability to harness the collective power of 27 nations. Among other initiatives, the Emissions Trading System, the aim to increase the share of renewables in energy production to 20% by 2020, and commitment to cutting emissions of the six Kyoto greenhouse gases by 20% by 2020 and 80-95% by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels) are weighty objectives that will have a significant impact(2). The EU accounts for roughly 11% of the world’s emissions meaning its policies possess genuine clout. But is this potential under threat?

Barack Obama’s promises are very welcome indeed. In fact, David Cameron’s call for a discussion about the direction of the European project is, as well. That is, as long as we do not frivolously cast aside the underrated environmental power the EU can wield.


1. Robert Henson, The Rough Guide to Climate Change (London, 2011), p. 47.

2. http://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/brief/eu/index_en.htm


Obama – roxannejomitchell on flickr

Cameron – I See Modern Britain on flickr


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