08/05/2013 04:21 pm ET

Obama Team's New Resolve Underlines That the Tide May Be Turning on Tackling Climate Change

In her first big speech since becoming administrator of the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), Gina McCarthy asserted on July 30 that climate change is an "opportunity of a lifetime" to create jobs and boost innovation. In rhetoric that pulled no punches, she promised that the administration would engage extensively on the climate agenda in the remaining three years of President Obama's term of office.

McCarthy's forceful speech comes just a month since Obama unveiled the first national US plan to "reduce carbon pollution and lead global efforts to fight" climate change. The initiative, which will see the administration rest heavily upon executive actions through the EPA, rather than seeking to get legislation through Congress, includes limiting greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, increasing appliance efficiency standards, and promoting renewable energy development on public lands.

The plan, coming less than a year after the extensive flooding from Superstorm Sandy, also focuses on preparing the United States for the impacts of near-term climate change. The urgency of this issue for Obama will only have been heightened by the release in February of the latest biennial US Government Accountability Office's (GAO) review which included climate change for the first time ever in its "high risk list". The GAO asserted that climate change presents a "significant financial risk", and asserted Washington needs a "government-wide strategic approach with strong leadership" in response.

The increased resolve of the Obama administration on climate change will be welcomed by many across the world, and comes during a period when it may seem hard not to be pessimistic about the global battle to tackle climate change. For instance, the annual UN Framework on Climate Change summit last December made only modest progress, despite the fact that evidence mounts that our planet is heating up, and prospects of preventing dangerous climate change, which all countries have agreed should be avoided by limiting warming to no more than 2C, seem to be receding.

However, far from this being the hopeless situation some depict, these latest US developments underline that we may be reaching a point when the international tide decisively turns on tackling climate change. To be sure, much more needs to be done, but if one steps back and examines what is happening at national and sub-national levels across the world, a relatively positive picture is emerging.

That is, domestic laws and regulations to address climate change are being passed at an increasing rate -- in stark contrast to the progress in international negotiations. In 2012 alone, as described in a report published by GLOBE International, 32 of 33 surveyed countries (which account for over 85% of global greenhouse gas emissions), including the United States, have introduced or are progressing significant climate or related legislation and regulation.

This is nothing less than 'game-changing':

• China, after the publication of its 12th five year plan in 2011, has proceeded with detailed implementation guidelines including rules for emissions trading pilots, progress with drafting its climate change law and publication of an energy white paper. Moreover, last October sub-national legislation was passed in Shenzhen to tackle climate change - the first such legislation in China.
• Mexico has passed a general law on climate change - a comprehensive legislative framework.
• South Africa has proposed a carbon tax in its latest budget.
• South Korea passed legislation to begin a nationwide emissions trading scheme by 2015.
• The EU passed a new directive on energy efficiency, and Germany strengthened legislation relating to carbon capture and storage and energy efficiency.

Right now, it is mainly developing countries, which will provide the motor of global economic growth in coming decades, which are leading this drive. Many are concluding it is in their national interest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by embracing low-carbon growth and development, and to better prepare for the impact of climate change.

They see that expanding domestic sources of renewable energy not only reduces emissions but also increases energy security by reducing reliance on imported fossil fuels. Reducing energy demand through greater efficiency reduces costs and increases competitiveness. Improving resilience to the impacts of climate change also makes economic sense.

It follows, therefore, that advancing domestic climate legislation and regulations, and experiencing the co-benefits of reducing emissions, is a crucial building block to help create the political conditions to enable a comprehensive, global climate agreement to be reached. Domestic laws give clear signals about direction of policy, reducing uncertainty, particularly for the private sector.

With negotiations on a post-2020 comprehensive global deal scheduled to conclude in 2015, it is very unlikely that an agreement, with the necessary ambition, will be reached unless more domestic frameworks are in place in key countries. Sound domestic actions enhance the prospects of international action, and better international prospects enhance domestic actions.

Given this outlook, and as difficult international negotiations continue, a danger is that some countries might lower their long-term ambition. At a time when the climate change debate is undergoing such change, this would be ill-timed. Indeed, as in the United States, now is the right time to invest more in tackling climate change, in order to help expedite conditions that will enable a comprehensive global treaty.