With all the news about President Obama’s deal to reduce this year’s federal budget by $38 billion and his proposal to reduce total deficits by $4 trillion over the next 12 years, it is easy to bypass the Administration’s promise to finally act boldly on climate change and help the U.S. unleash a wave of innovation in clean energy, smarter transportation, and energy efficiency. The budget deal alone signals that the U.S. will reduce its investments in clean energy, high-speed rail, and energy efficiency at a time when countries like China and Germany are moving ahead at full speed to capture a market that will be worth trillions of dollars in the next several years.
Today, the Obama Administration’s commitment became even clearer when Todd Stern, the Administration’s climate envoy to the United Nations climate negotiations, declared that a climate treaty was “unworkable.” In Stern’s own words, “it’s [not] necessary that there be [an] internationally binding emission caps as long as you’ve got national laws and regulations. What I am saying is it’s not doable.” In effect, Stern is stating the Obama Administration’s position is that to move forward on climate change, countries will have to simply do whatever they can on their own. This clearly shows the level of urgency the Obama administration has placed on climate change, basically declaring that solving climate change is a luxury rather than a real global emergency similar to nuclear proliferation.
If it were true that we could solve climate change and avoid the trillions in costs it will bring by the end of the century by simply allowing countries to draw up their own plans (by the way, this is not very different from what the Bush administration proposed in their “voluntary scheme”), then it would also be true that we did not need the New START or any other non-proliferation treaties because countries could draw up their own plans voluntarily and address the issue the best way they could (regardless of how long it would take them or how much they could do).
This approach is well-known to be a recipe for failure, and if as a society we believe that risking failure to act boldly on climate change is an acceptable result, then we are accepting endangering future generations’ livelihoods and creating conditions that will be catastrophically damaging to the global environment and economy. I agree that circumstance is causing the Obama administration to put a lot of important issues aside, but how can anybody who understands climate change agree that a President who has so frequently called for bold action now sends his climate envoy to negotiations saying that a treaty is not and will not be possible?
If Obama was really committed, he would come out and set the record straight to let the world know that a treaty is not only still possible, but that it is in fact a requirement to ensuring that we will not give future generations a planet that is so damaged that it can no longer support productive economies. What we saw today from Todd Stern is just another sign that Obama is now less willing to stand strongly for anything, much less employ his political capital to get things done. I hope the President knows what he’s doing and won’t end up being ashamed of not acting when he could years down the road.