Foreign Policy Blogs

Obama and Copenhagen

I have not been, like most of the rest of the climate change cognoscenti, writing nonstop about Copenhagen this week.  I have been working on reviewing thesis work from students in the MS in Global Affairs program at NYU where I teach on climate change.  I’ve had one blockbuster thesis on how to make the Finance folks at multinationals more proactive in guiding their companies toward sustainability.  I’ve also been looking at some great analyses of how the Arctic impacts and is impacted by climate change, and how US climate change and energy legislation will play, particularly relative to international trade.

Please note, while I’m on it, that some of my fellow FPA bloggers have plenty of interesting and important things to say on climate change in the context of “Global Engagement,” the Arctic, energy, and food security.

I certainly have been thinking about the proceedings in Copenhagen.  I get about 50 emails a day with invitations to various and sundry “side events” there.  It must be like a nonstop symposium on sustainability and climate change.  It’d be like Christmas for me.  I’ve also been following some of the news, as I’m sure many of you have.

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has a positive view of the state of play at COP15, as does the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Yvo de Boer, as he tells us in this video.  For more, see Betting on Copenhagen, or go to the UNFCCC website for daily updates with lots of documentation.

But some of the most important news relative to how we’re going to proceed internationally has been coming out of Washington.  First of all, President Obama originally said he’d parachute into the talks before he went to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.  The White House announced last week, though, that the President would join other world leaders at the conclusion of the conference in order to finalize the agreements.  The statement noted he “…believes that continued US leadership can be most productive through his participation at the end of the Copenhagen conference on December 18th…”  There has been a strong US presence at the talks throughout, including key cabinet secretaries, among them Ken Salazar and Gary Locke, and that presence will intensify.

The EPA announced in March that it would seek an “endangerment finding” for greenhouse gases under existing Clean Air Act regulations.  They finalized this on Monday this week.  What does it mean?  It means the US can – and indeed legally must – act to protect public health by curtailing greenhouse gases.  “The Administrator finds that the current and projected concentrations of the six key well-mixed greenhouse gases–carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6)–in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.”  This section of the EPA’s website is devoted to the legal and regulatory history, the rationales for the finding, and the enormous volume of commentary on the finding and the EPA’s exhaustive response.  (Here is an analysis from Reuters on the regulatory vs the legislative tracks in Washington.)

This is as clear an indication as you can have that the Obama Administration is focused on doing everything it possibly can to mitigate climate change.  I’ve written about their work in this regard many times here.  You can find more on EPA’s critically important perspective and role in all of this here.

The EPA announcement this week is also a shot across the bow at Congress.  As you know, there has been a tremendous amount of activity on climate change and energy on The Hill over the past year.  (See The State of Play – Domestic Division and What’s Up with the Senate?)  Last week, the excellent “NY Times” blog Green Inc. reported on a letter sent from key Democratic Senators to President Obama laying out their conditions for supporting climate legislation.  “The signers of the letter say they will support climate legislation and international efforts to combat global warming if all nations – industrialized as well as developing – are held to stringent limits on climate-altering emissions.”  That is not going to happen soon, in Copenhagen or anywhere else.  What may happen, however, is that final US legislation may include mechanisms for a “carbon tariff” as the Waxman-Markey bill does.  There are many, many ins and outs to this approach.  Here’s one good look at a complex subject.  If anyone is wondering, I honestly don’t know why US legislation shouldn’t include some measure of “protection” against carbon leakage.  It is – as my thesis student pointed out – perfectly defensible within existing WTO rules, and frankly, we’re not going to have it go in this country without some mechanism of this sort.  That’s the plain political hard fact.  Stay tuned on that.

No matter what happens in Washington this spring, or after, we are going to have progress from COP 15 and we’re continuing to move ahead on several fronts, even though the politics at times may be incredibly tortuous – and often torturous.  Or, to paraphrase the old adage: life is short, politics is long.

UPDATE:  New climate action draft emerges at Copenhagen is the story from Deutsche Welle.   “The draft agreement is looking toward a reduction in greenhouse gases for industrialized nations of 25 percent and 40 percent compared to 1990 levels by 2020 and by 75 percent to 95 percent by 2050. For developing countries, targeted are emissions reductions of 15 percent to 30 percent by 2020 compared to the emissions that would have occurred by that year had climate change measures not been taken.”  That’s a lot of GHG.  (Perfectly do-able, still quite the quantities.)   Presumably, the draft wouldn’t be circulating with these numbers, though, if the big countries weren’t heading in this direction.   Here’s the draft itself from the UNFCCC.

  • Lawrence Baker

    Global Warming-IS- Human / Industrial Waste!
    The best indisputable SCIENCE example that should be the #1 item on the Copenhagen Agenda would be the toxic waste dump, the size of Texas, 900 miles off of the United States and Canadian West Coast.
    That is a Big SCIENCE problem with no dedicated U.S SCIENCE and INNOVATION DEPARTMENT to address the issue. The U.S (or Canada) has not even sent out a SCIENCE research vessel to evaluate this ecological disaster; neither country wants to take the responsibility for the industrial/human pollution or even acknowledge its existence.
    No Profit-No Action!-No SCIENCE! Will the World Trade Organization and the New Industrial World Order address the issue? Where is their World SCIENCE Department?
    Can the problem be solved with SCIENCE? Probably so, Americans are very ingenious primarily because we were raised with the compliments of Freedom and Democracy and are free thinking individuals. We could probably figure a way to clean up the mess and possibly make a profit doing so.
    We can do nothing until we have a DEPARTMENT OF SCIENCE that is free to address SCIENCE and to develop the advancement of SCIENCE. (Yes, for the sake of humanity; SCIENCE FIRST-PANDERING SECOND.)

    • Lawrence – On dead zones, I’ve written about these here. They are indeed a terrible problem. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for one, is engaged in considerable research with a view to getting at the problem.

  • The world is urging the American President to lead in Copenhagen. President Obama is a multilateralist and a champion of emissions reductions, but he will not produce a binding agreement at COP15 because of the inaction of the US Senate. Despite all the activity in Denmark, the front line of the climate issue is not in Copenhagen, it is in Washington.


Bill Hewitt
Bill Hewitt

Bill Hewitt has been an environmental activist and professional for nearly 25 years. He was deeply involved in the battle to curtail acid rain, and was also a Sierra Club leader in New York City. He spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, and worked on environmental issues for two NYC mayoral campaigns and a presidential campaign. He is a writer and editor and is the principal of Hewitt Communications. He has an M.S. in international affairs, has taught political science at Pace University, and has graduate and continuing education classes on climate change, sustainability, and energy and the environment at The Center for Global Affairs at NYU. His book, "A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," will be out from the University Press of New England in December.

Areas of Focus:
the policy, politics, science and economics of environmental protection, sustainability, energy and climate change