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Will it make a difference in Doha?


Friday 9 November 2012

Ahead of the UN international climate talks which will begin at the end of this month in Doha, Qatar, there was one great unknown – who would be speaking for the United States?

China is also having a change in leadership this week, but the result has been long known and is unlikely to result in any significant shift on climate policy. The US election, on the other hand, could have delivered an extreme change of course that would have invalidated much of the work done throughout this year to prepare for the Doha summit.

Mitt Romney's position on whether climate change is caused by man has never been clear. We never really got a straight answer because, as I've written about before, the issue has been completely absent from the campaign. But what has been clear is that he does not believe in policy to reduce emissions. During the campaign he mocked the president for promising to “slow the rise of the oceans”. Last October he said, "We don't know what's causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us."

Romney had pledged to repeal the Obama Administration's executive order giving the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. He also said he would do away with the fuel efficiency standards put in place by the Obama administration.

Suffice it to say there was some nervousness in the European Commission's climate department about the prospect of a Romney victory. They didn't know exactly what it would mean for American participation in global climate talks, but they knew it wouldn't be in line with what Europe wants. This was causing severe hand-wringing over the prospect for any future global deal. Though China is now doing more than America in efforts to mitigate climate change, China will not sign up to any globally binding deal unless the US does so as well.

That being said, climate campaigners and EU negotiators haven't exactly been enthralled with Obama's behaviour in international climate talks either. There was a profound sense of disillusionment after the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, when Europeans had expected a much more cooperative US delegation based on the president's campaign rhetoric. But the Obama administration was not only unwilling to sign up to binding emissions reduction, they also snubbed the EU by meeting behind its back with China Brazil and Russia at the end of the summit, relegating Europe to being an irrelevance.

I remember back in 2009 a real sense of confusion from the European journalists covering the summit. They had expected the EU and the Obama administration to be on the same side in these negotiations. But the American journalists covering the summit were confused by the Europeans' confusion. They thought it was a very promising result in light of the fact that the president had to get his climate bill passed by a largely climate-sceptic congress.

The obstacles to a US agreement to binding emission reduction targets only increased after the Republican party took control of the US House of Representatives in 2010. That change in power meant the US cap-and-trade bill had to be withdrawn. Ever since then, US politicians have not dared to even bring the subject up.

Climate change is not the salient issue in the US that it is in Europe. Julian Hunt, a former chief executive of the UK Meteorological Office and a member of the British House of Lords, told me last month that even Democrats feel unable to talk about climate action in the current climate in Washington. “If I go to America, people say ‘we can't talk about this [climate change] here, we'll have to go to the Starbucks across the road,” he told me. “It's like when I used to go to the Soviet Union, the civil servants could lose their job if they talk about what is a very sensitive subject.”

Hope for a 'freed' Obama

Speaking with NGOs and people in the Commission since Tuesday, there is a definite sense of relief. Any many picked up on the fact that the president mentioned the challenge of global warming in his victory speech Tuesday night, something he had not brought up during any of the debates.

There is an idea here Brussels that a newly freed Obama administration, no longer subject to the pressures of reelection, will suddenly surprise negotiators in Doha with a willingness to sign up to serious action. Talk of up the EU's 2020 emissions reduction pledge to 30% has increased as a way to spur this on.

But European negotiators shouldn't break out the champagne just yet. The reality is that with this election result, nothing changes in the US balance of power. Obama will still be working with a Republican House of Representatives and a Republican minority in the senate that is over 40% - the threshold which can block any piece of legislation with a filibuster.

The GOP can still block any agreement on the climate. Obama does not want to find himself in the same position as Bill Clinton, who signed up to the Kyoto Protocol only to have it rejected by the US congress and shelved by the next president, George W. Bush. It is no use for the Obama administration's negotiators to sign up to a commitment they know they cannot get through the US congress.

Still, it is possible Doha could see a major announcement from the United States, now that the political pressures of the election are a thing of the past. Such an announcement is unlikely to be that the US is going to sign up to binding commitments right away. But they could decide to increase their non-binding 17% reduction target, or they could show leadership in crafting the roadmap to a future binding climate deal by 2015.

However if EU negotiators and climate activists see no change in attitude in Doha as a result of the election, it will be a profound disappointment for them. It would mean that any hope for a changed reality from an Obama re-election was misplaced.

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Observations and comment from European Voice's environment reporter.

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