Barack Obama took the oath of office on January 20, 2009 with the wind at his back, armed with a mandate to reverse the course of the Bush administration on a wide range of issues, climate change prominent among them. Ten months later, the winds have stilled and Obama appears paralyzed, unable to move forward on his promise to establish a domestic greenhouse gas reduction program, while climate legislation has slowed to a crawl in the Senate.
Under extreme pressure to take action, Obama announced plans to travel to the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. On his way to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Obama will stop in Copenhagen to deliver a proposal for U.S. greenhouse gas emission reductions mirroring targets adopted by the House of Representatives. Those targets amount to, at best, 4% below 1990 levels by 2020. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its 2007 report, suggested that 25-40% cuts from 1990 levels would be required of developed countries to have roughly a fifty-fifty shot at avoiding climate catastrophe. In other words, the targets Obama will take to Copenhagen are between 10 and 16% of the minimum required. Nevertheless, the mainstream media has spoken with one voice, calling the Obama administration's willingness to put forward this proposal a game-changer that restores hope for success in Copenhagen.
Obama's approach to climate policy clearly signals that he considers U.S. greenhouse gas emission reduction efforts to be constrained by what Congress will support. It is easy to understand why Obama is so reluctant to push beyond Congress. The U.S., after initially signing the Kyoto protocol, has delayed serious action on climate for 12 years and counting because of the Senate's unwillingness to ratify the treaty. Obama does not want to misinterpret what the Senate can support, so he would prefer to advance international commitments precisely matching those mandated by Congress.
The Obama administration's unwillingness to risk getting out in front of Congress has been and remains a huge problem for the U.N. climate negotiations, as Obama has not allowed his negotiators to make the commitments necessary to advance the international talks. The announcement that the U.S. will bring its Congressional targets to Copenhagen not only does not improve the situation, the targets are so weak that they may actually increase the likelihood of a walkout by some of the least developed countries in Copenhagen.
The stance of developing countries has been and remains that fully industrialized countries like the United States must establish and meet strong emission reduction goals before asking commitments of less developed countries. In addition, the developing world expects substantial financial help from industrialized countries to address the effects of climate change, construct a low-carbon development path and compensate them for halting the export-driven development that drives deforestation.
They have a solid moral case for those demands. Industrialized nations, most prominently the United States, became wealthy by exploiting cheap fossil fuel energy, in the process dumping huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon footprint, both on a national and individual basis, largely correlates with wealth. Wealthy nations continue to dump much more CO2 per person into the atmosphere than the developing world and, from the perspective of the Global South, the problem appears quite clearly as one that has been created and should be resolved by wealthy industrialized countries.
As we approach the Copenhagen conference, scheduled for December 7-18, many countries are growing increasingly frustrated with the inability of the United States to engage constructively. Obama's negotiators have been accused of leading a race to the bottom and destabilizing ongoing negotiations. The unambitious targets proposed by the Obama administration lend weight to those accusations. The last two months have seen growing friction between U.S. negotiators and delegates from less developed countries as the opportunity to produce an effective and just climate agreement in Copenhagen appears to be slipping away.
There is a way that the United States can become a positive force to move the international climate negotiations forward, but it will require a tectonic shift in the administration's approach. The view that domestic legislation establishes the outer boundary for U.S. climate commitments is widely held and uncontroversial. It is also deeply and dangerously wrong. Obama is not required to act like a deliveryman, simply accepting what Congress offers and passing it on to his negotiators. He can and should instead adopt a climate strategy that bypasses the legislative morass.
Obama must frankly admit that the politics of the U.S. Senate are a threat to international agreement in Copenhagen. His climate team should publicly announce a short term CO2 emissions goal strong enough to reinvigorate the stalled U.N. climate negotiations, far deeper cuts than those envisaged by Congress, and commit to using every tool in the national workshop to achieve that goal, including Environmental Protection Agency action using the Clean Air Act. Individual states must be encouraged to establish strong greenhouse gas regulations and renewable energy standards of their own, and the Obama administration should offer the backing of the EPA to help them do so. That action must begin now.
Obama should further make clear that he will veto any legislation adopted by Congress that weakens his ability or the ability of individual states to take independent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The sum of greenhouse gas reductions from strong executive branch action and aggressive action on the part of states is likely to be much more than that achieved by the compromised legislation working its way through the Senate now. Additional tools provided by legislation would be most welcome, but EPA's Clean Air Act authority can be used now to provide legitimacy to the commitments Obama should make at the U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen, and in the future as both insurance against the failure of any new climate programs and a known, effective instrument for addressing gaps in new legislation.
Obama can empower his negotiators to become solid contributors to an international agreement by freeing them from the constraints imposed by inadequate domestic legislation and timidity in the face of dim prospects for climate treaty approval. At this moment, the Senate simply cannot ratify a climate deal that is both effective and equitable. That will change as the impacts of climate change become more obvious and the national embarrassment ensured by non-participation in the most critical international agreement ever undertaken becomes more painful to bear. Until that shift occurs, however, President Obama should push Congress to strengthen its commitment to aggressive greenhouse gas regulation, direct his negotiators to work for a strong and just agreement, and pledge to use all the tools at his disposal to fulfill the terms of that agreement whether or not the treaty is ever endorsed by the U.S. Senate.
If President Obama continues to believe that Congress must establish the U.S. negotiating position in Copenhagen and beyond, we will get neither aggressive domestic action nor a strong and just international agreement. The combination of international pressure, EPA regulation and action from individual states can put Obama instead of Congress in the driver's seat. Global warming is too critical for us to accept delay or inadequate action from Congress. Obama has the tools necessary to commit to and deliver deep emission cuts now, and it is his moral obligation to do so. There is simply no justification for delay.
Reede Stockton manages the Campaign for Climate Equity  at Global Exchange in San Francisco, California.