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Why Obama’s New International Climate Change Plan Is Probably Doomed

The president wants to name and shame the rest of the world into cutting carbon emissions, but that requires moral authority, which America sorely lacks these days.

Photo via the White House's Flickr account

Barack Obama has finally realized that the men running the US Senate are such nihilist blowhards that they will never approve a legally binding treaty to combat global warming. So as the New York Times reported earlier this week, the president’s new plan is to name and shame the rest of the world into cutting carbon emissions.

The problem is that shaming others, whether individuals or countries, usually requires that you—the one doing the shaming—have some modicum of moral authority. Or at least credibility. Unfortunately, Americans like Obama have neither. Whether it’s the cascade of police brutality across the country this summer, the ongoing lawless detention of alleged terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, or the general chaos left in the Middle East in the wake of decades of adventurist and oil-hungry foreign policy, our reputation is in tatters. So it's not exactly an ideal moment for the president to be leveraging America's image abroad, even if negotiations in New York this fall ahead of treaty talks in Paris next year mean he can't wait any longer.


Leaving all the national security excesses aside, as we’ve been saying around here for a while now, Obama has been mediocre at best on climate change. He refuses to halt fracking on public land, has accelerated coal exports, and generally continues to insist on an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy production—which means hastening the demise of the atmosphere. Certainly, it’s good news that his Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed aggressive new rules to rein in emissions at coal-fired power plants, which are responsible for much of the greenhouse gas output in the United States. But why they waited until the summer from hell to do so—that I couldn’t tell you.

This isn’t entirely on the Obama administration: George W. Bush refused to build on the Kyoto Protocol (which the Senate refused to ratify), and energy companies have plenty of congressmen in their pocket. It doesn't help that environmentalists have been getting dismissed as annoying hippies since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring came out in 1962. What's changed is the relative corruption and dysfunction of our key institutions, like Congress—essentially, the stranglehold of big money over the political system.

“There’s a strong understanding of the difficulties of the US situation, and a willingness to work with the US to get out of this impasse,” Laurence Tubiana, French ambassador for climate change to the UN, told the Times. “There is an implicit understanding that this not require ratification by the Senate.”

That the rest of the civilized world is apparently content to accommodate our ineptitude is awfully nice. But what some are calling a new tack in response to the steady stream of terrifying missives emanating from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change looks, to many seasoned observers of international climate negotiations at least, like more of the same old tune.

“I don't see anything new here,” said Karen Orenstein, an accredited observer of international climate talks at the environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth. “This is the continuation of what they've been doing in the climate negotiations for many years and it's basically leading the world in a race to bottom." Avoiding a legally binding treaty will make it easy to stop helping poor countries whenever convenient, including those island nations facing the most imminent risk of being swallowed up by rising sea levels.

Of course, this is all assuming Republicans in Congress don't launch some kind of coup to prevent our doing anything that smacks of solidarity with the rest of the world. As Zoë Schlanger reported for Newsweek, there's an obscure provision of the Clean Air Act that gives the federal government authority to regulate pollutants in states doing harm to other countries. This would appear to give Obama a card he can play at international climate talks, one that's a bit more substantial and compelling than the blame game. But given his administration's systematic cowardice when it comes to the climate, it's hard to envision him pursuing something so controversial and promising.

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