11/30/2010 02:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is Obama Worse Than Bush on International Climate?

2010-11-30-WelcomeCancun.jpgDelegates from around the world are gathering in Cancun for international climate negotiations this week and next, and a storyline is developing that might surprise many Americans.

President Obama has done a better job than his predecessor at addressing climate change at the domestic level (though Obama's efforts have still underwhelmed). But at the international level, the Obama administration's posturing has become so retrogressive that it now forces this question: Is President Obama doing even worse than President Bush at addressing climate change on the international stage?

President Bush did not rise to the challenge of cooperating with other countries to respond to climate change; his administration largely dismissed the climate crisis -- and, when it finally decided to engage in international negotiations, it refused to commit the United States to doing its fair share of the work to solve the problem. (The U.S. has pumped more heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere than any other country, so it has a responsibility to lead the way to solutions.)

President Obama has more assertively engaged the U.S. in international negotiations. But instead of doing so in a way that might lead to a strong and fair climate agreement, his administration is seeking to undermine the existing international climate regime and replace it with something fundamentally and dangerously weaker. If President Obama doesn't reverse course in Cancun, his predecessor's approach may turn out to have done less harm than his own.

The Backstory

From 2001-2006, President Bush refused to engage in international climate negotiations in a serious way. He questioned climate science, made it known that the U.S. was fundamentally opposed to the Kyoto Protocol (which contains the only legally binding greenhouse gas emissions reduction requirements for developed countries), and left it at that.

But in 2007, President Bush began to change his tune. "In recent years, science has deepened our understanding of climate change and opened new possibilities for confronting it," he said. "The United States takes this issue seriously."

That year, the Bush administration participated in a UN climate negotiating session in Bali, Indonesia, and helped to produce the "Bali Roadmap." Because the U.S. had made it clear that it wouldn't ratify the Kyoto Protocol, other countries used the Bali Roadmap to carve out a special space separate from Kyoto in which the United States could make its own emissions reduction commitment.

Fast forward to just after the presidential election in 2008. In late November 2008, President-elect Obama sent a taped message to the attendees of a climate summit hosted by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. "Once I take office," Obama told attendees, "you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations and help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change."

Two months later, delivering his inaugural address, President Obama warned "those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty" that they could no longer "consume the world's resources without regard to effect."

"The world has changed, and we must change with it," Obama said.

But instead of following through on this lofty rhetoric by providing climate leadership, the Obama administration stalled for time in the negotiations, telling the rest of the world it had to wait for Congress to act. In Copenhagen, U.S. negotiators urged countries to unite around a nonbinding "political" climate agreement with voluntary emissions reductions far weaker than what science and equity indicate are needed. Crucially, the new paradigm the U.S. proposed would lack aggregate global emissions reduction targets, and would instead allow each country to reduce its emissions however much it liked, without respect to what overall global emissions would then total.

After two weeks of negotiations in Copenhagen in which the U.S. and other developed countries blocked progress by shirking strong commitments to action, a last-minute, closed-door push by President Obama led a number of influential countries to agree to sign the Copenhagen Accord, which advanced the new paradigm supported by the U.S. After the Accord's existence was announced, a firestorm ensued, with many delegations upset that the Accord had been developed via a process that excluded many countries that could be harmed by climate change, and that the Accord did not reflect the demands of science or justice. After pulling an all-nighter to continue negotiations, delegates finally voted to "note" the existence of the Accord without adopting it.

Worse Than Bush?

As another round of negotiations begins this week, this time in Cancun, the Obama administration is seeking to undermine the Bali Action Plan to which the Bush administration agreed.

President Obama's lead climate negotiators, Todd Stern and Jonathan Pershing, are taking a "my way or the highway" approach to the negotiations, insisting that the only way forward is if other countries agree to the Copenhagen Accord. The U.S. claims not to take a position on the Kyoto Protocol, but the "pledge-based" approach it has promoted in the Accord is, in practice, an attempt to replace the Protocol with a far weaker substitute.

This is particularly problematic because the first period of emission reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012. By continuing to promote an agreement based on the Accord, and dismissing the importance of aggregate emissions reduction commitments, President Obama's representatives are undermining the efforts of other countries to move forward with a second commitment period. What this means is that most countries that currently face legally binding limits on emissions could see those limits disappear in 2012.

The U.S. has used bullying tactics to push its approach at the negotiations. U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern has threatened to block the creation of a global climate fund, which would deliver climate assistance to poor countries, unless major developing countries make more concessions. At the same time that the U.S. is offering to do far less than its fair share to address this problem, it is threatening to hold hostage funding that poor and vulnerable countries require to combat the impacts of climate change, which in some cases threaten their very survival.

This stands in contrast to the approach pursued by President Bush, who signaled by agreeing to the Bali Roadmap that the U.S. was content to leave the Kyoto Protocol intact. In this way, President Obama is actually doing more than President Bush did to hinder progress at the international level -- his administration is in effect leading a race to the bottom on emissions reduction commitments, and at the same time it is fomenting conflict between developed and developing countries over the delivery of climate funding.

To be sure, the Obama administration has done a better job of responding to climate change at the domestic level. President Obama has supported the Clean Air Act and his EPA is moving to use this law to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, which the Bush administration refused to do. President Obama was also a key supporter of incentives for clean energy in the Recovery Act: a commitment of $150 billion over the next 10 years to boost the wind, solar, and geothermal industries (as well as hydropower and bioenergy, which aren't so clean). This is more than was ever delivered in such a short period by President Bush.*

But being better than Bush at the domestic level is a very low threshold by which to measure President Obama. The climate crisis is a global one; it can't be solved solely by action at the domestic level, and it requires a commitment to constructive international engagement. Progress in the UN negotiations is sorely needed. The Obama administration must stop hindering that progress.

How the Obama Administration Can Redeem Itself

The negotiations taking place this week and the next offer the Obama administration an opportunity to get back on the right track.

First, the Obama administration must support the establishment of a global emissions reduction target based on science. The administration must stop trying to drag the rest of the world down to its very low level of ambition when it comes to emissions reductions, as the climate crisis demands far higher, not lower, ambition from all developed countries.

In addition, the administration must not block the establishment of a global climate fund. The administration must support putting this fund under the authority of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change -- not the World Bank.

The U.S. should also follow through on and increase its pledges to deliver funds to support poorer countries as they develop cleaner economies and respond to climate change impacts. At previous climate talks, the provision of such funds has been used as a bargaining chip by the U.S. to force other countries to do its bidding. But this funding shouldn't be spun as an act of generosity on the part of the U.S.; rather, it is the repayment of an existing obligation. As the largest historic polluter of greenhouse gases, the U.S. bears a "climate debt": The U.S. owes money to developing countries faced with climate change impacts because it has filled more than its fair share of the atmosphere with climate-warming pollution.

The climate negotiations in Cancun mean it's decision time for President Obama. Will he contribute constructively to the international negotiations, or will he continue down the current path and end up worse than Bush?

* President Obama has done some great things, but at the same time, let's not give him too much credit for his work at the domestic level. Sure he's better than Bush was, but that's an awfully low bar. President Obama backed a deeply flawed legislative strategy that had Democrats throwing giveaway after giveaway to polluting industries in exchange for a cap-and-trade bill that was so riddled with loopholes it would have accomplished little but enrich Wall Street. President Obama also used his 2010 State of the Union address to call offshore oil drilling, nuclear reactors, and coal "clean." And President Obama put so much pressure on the U.S. Export-Import Bank (a federal institution) to reverse its decision not to finance a massive coal plant in India that the Bank ended up caving, sending fossil fuel subsidies flowing out of the U.S.