THE BLOG
06/28/2013 08:22 am ET | Updated Aug 28, 2013

U.S. Action on Climate Change: Yes, We... Might?

The front pages of many -- especially European -- newspapers are full of negative coverage on the U.S. at the moment: PRISM and Edward Snowden, sequestration and gridlock in Congress. Bad press galore. Still, there is positive news as well. Maybe not on the front page, but hidden in the "miscellaneous international" section, we find encouraging news, too. It seems as if, finally, the American president is starting to act.

For those of us who try to fight climate change politically, this is good news indeed: We have received more cause for -- cautious -- optimism during these first months of Obama's second term than in all four years of his first one. After years in which an American president would never even use the word "climate change," let alone accept this as a reality or propose to fight against it, President Obama not only made reference to climate change in both his inauguration speech and the State of the Union address, but also continued to follow this priority after the dust settled, after the blaze following the election campaign and the inauguration passed.

A few weeks ago, the U.S. found an agreement with China and decided to find ways to cut both production and use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. This indeed would be a massive step -- "a global phase down of HFCs could potentially reduce around 90 gigatons of CO2 by 2050, equal to roughly two years worth of current global greenhouse gas emissions." Yes, they want to do that as part of the Montreal Protocol rather than the Kyoto Protocol (or any future climate agreement), which might cause problems, but honestly, this is not a major concern at this point. What I see is that, for the first time in many years, the U.S. reach out to assure strategic action on climate change.

In Berlin, last week, President Obama said on climate change, the U.S. needs to do more and will do more and last Tuesday, during a speech at Georgetown University, Obama outlined his strategy in more detail. The pace increases and this proved quite a positive surprise. But maybe the saying is true: good things come to those who wait.

Since the situation in Congress, with the Republican majority in the House, has not changed, the president now uses a detour: He can -- through a waiver issued by the Clean Air Act of 1970 -- direct the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions. He does not have to include Congress. Which is exactly what he announced with mighty words, at a historical site, and with the world listening.

In his speech, President Obama also referred to the many (U.S.) states that have already implemented market-based programs to reduce carbon emissions or which have adopted energy efficiency or renewable energy targets. Also, Germany is quoted as an example. Thanks for that, Mr. President!

He also said it was time Washington caught up with the rest of the country. I hope you will allow me to say: It is time the Washington caught up with Europe! This is certainly not about cocking a snook at anybody -- it is just very rewarding to see that, finally, European leadership has paid off. Finally, the U.S. is "back in the game."

Obama's plan mirrors European initiatives and is based on the two-folded approach of mitigating climate change and at the same time adapting to unavoidable climate change. Should this plan be put into practice, it would be a huge success.

Still, we should not applaud too soon -- or too loudly. The American approach remains fundamentally different to the German or European one, for example with regard to nuclear energy, which is, for the EU, simply a low-carbon energy form. In Europe, this is a different question altogether. The same is true also with regard to the motivation behind climate protection: Obama often refers to the "moral duty" to leave a planet to our children which is not polluted and damaged. As a Christian democrat, I can only support that, but still, in Europe, this is rarely spoken of. Obama also spoke about natural disasters occurring ever more often. This is a reality, too. Still, for Europeans, reasons such as energy dependency or resource efficiency seem much more important.

But no matter why we act, in the end, it is the result that counts. And there, funny enough, comes one point, where we are of the same opinion: That there are effects of climate action on industry and the economy. Whether these effects are positive or negative is, again, subject to controversial debates. Unsurprisingly, immediately after the speech, the biggest corporations and associations outbid each other with grim scenarios of a future with ambitious carbon legislation - high energy prices, severe job losses and migration of industry abroad. I can assure you that in Europe, we have heard before -- many times. And we still do. But this allows us to assure the U.S. that we can certainly help when it comes to getting the arguments right. To all those who say that ambitious climate legislation will kill industry, cost jobs and massively impact upon consumers, making them pay the bill, I answer: Quite the contrary!

With those global, seemingly unprecedented challenges before us, like resources diminishing, peak oil approaching, natural disasters happening ever more often, in the future, only efficient products will sell globally. Even the Chinese, who used to serve as bad example when it came to climate action, have included goals on sustainability and efficiency in their current Five Year Plan. Which should make us wonder.

Maybe in the end, this is not about climate protection and not about fluffy do-goodism, but about common sense and business opportunities. Inefficient cars won't be sold and won't be exported! An inefficient industry won't have resources to produce. Like Obama, I am convinced that many sceptics simply underestimate the ingenuity and transformation potential of industry -- and the money in this market! Many studies have shown us that green technologies have the potential to become the biggest market in less than ten years time -- if we get our priorities right.

Sceptics always tell us that we cannot have both a sustainable and successful industry. This is nonsense. As Obama put it, indeed, this is not a question of either/or; it's a both/and! Europe can serve as an example. Yes, we might have done more, yes, we might have some problems at the moment, but no, we will not change our strategy -- because it starts to pay off!

Funny enough, apart from the obvious "job loss" and "energy price rise" scenarios, the arguments most used by opponents were democratic legitimacy and transparency. I have to say, I have never known that there are so many business leaders in the U.S. who worry about democracy. This is good to know. But still, opposition is severe -- and will, most probably, intensify. Unfortunately, Democrats -- at least from a European perspective -- seem to be reluctant to applaud. I hope this is just a misconception and not a strategic move, in case blame would need to be shifted. Then, it might be the president alone who was passed the buck. Congress more than annoyed of being ignored, but unusual circumstances sometimes ask for unusual measures. Still, support from Congress is needed, despite all presidential powers. And this remains the key question: Can Obama fight this through on his own?

On the international level, he is not alone -- far from it. Europe welcomes the U.S. back with open arms. For me, the most important aspect of the Georgetown speech was the reference to the international agreement on climate change, which according to Obama needs to be resuscitated. He said he would redouble "efforts to engage our international partners in reaching a new global agreement to reduce carbon pollution through concrete action." Again, sceptics might say doubling zero will still be zero, but let's not become cynical. Obama said that we need an ambitious and inclusive agreement. This is something I would like to come back to in Warsaw, during the COP19 climate change conference and this is more than what we had these five years past.

In any case, Obama will no longer be able to use Congress as explanation, as scapegoat for not delivering on climate change. This time, it is up to him. In Georgetown, he used bold imagery and quoted many historic moments, like the Apollo crew looking down on the Earth. Let's hope that this address will become a historic moment, too. I would like to believe that. Still, for the moment, the voice we hear on the other side of the Atlantic sounds more like "yes, we might" instead of "yes, we can"! Let's hope we got it wrong.