01/23/2013 02:30 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2013

Obama's New Pledge to Climate Change: A Promise for a Sustainable Future?

Presenting his key priorities for his second term during his inaugural address on Monday, President Barack Obama unexpectedly put the issue of climate change firmly back on his agenda. He promised to tackle the threat of climate change and even said that "a failure to do so would betray our children and future generations." Surprisingly for many observers, he expressed this idea quite graphically and more expressively than he did at any point in his election campaign and during much of his first term -- when it would have been urgently needed. Obama's reference to many people still denying science's "overwhelming judgement" is also remarkable, however, his reference to the devastating impact of fires, droughts and, for the U.S., most importantly, the storms that have already had on the country clarifies the rationale behind these lines: It's not morals, but realism that is bringing the U.S. back to the negotiation table.

After four years of U.S. absence in international climate negotiations, this affirmation now raises hope that the U.S. will finally follow Europe's example of carbon market regulation and other climate legislation. An international agreement on climate protection might, again, be within the realms of possibility.

However, while the signal in general should be acclaimed, great expectations with regard to concrete steps would be premature. The Republicans still control the House of Representatives, which means that they can still block any parliamentary initiative by Congress. Still, one should not forget that the U.S. president has powers that would allow him to take important steps with regard to climate protection (e.g. through the Environment Protection Agency) -- should he wish to do so.

What we should consider in any case is that, yes, climate change has found its way back into U.S. politics, but this is not because of altruistic tendencies, but due to a strong interest in maintaining "economic vitality" as President Obama puts it. Therefore, Obama's most interesting references relate to climate protection as a gateway for new technologies, bringing hope for new jobs and industries.

This should also serve as a wake-up call for Europe, reminding us that the U.S. will not let an economic opportunity pass unused any longer. We should keep track of what our transatlantic friends are doing, for chances are high that the U.S. will use those "four forgotten years" as a pace-up, leading to a big leap in technology and output. The president has vowed to lead the transition to sustainable development. As a response, Europe must ensure that it is not taken aback. The first mover will indeed lead the way for a long time. It is good that America now sees the necessity to act, but let's make sure that they follow us -- and not the other way around.