Other industrial nations expect all talk and no action from Washington. But Obama’s climate plan has them finally taking notice.
By Coral Davenport | Updated: July 1, 2013 | 6:19 a.m.
The U.S. had failed to be a world leader in fighting global warming—until this week.
President Obama’s new climate-change plan, which he unfurled at a speech at Georgetown University, is a messy, second-best affair. It comes only after he failed to move an economy-wide climate-change bill through Congress, and, at its core, the plan relies on a top-down executive mandate to force cuts of carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. It will face legal challenges, cost jobs in coal country, and galvanize his political opponents, from Republicans to the fossil-fuel industry.
But bypassing Congress and using the unpopular tool of executive action also positions Obama to do what no president before him has been able to—show up at the global climate-change negotiating table with a credible, concrete action plan in hand, one that he can use to force action from other nations.
In the past, even when U.S. leaders have had the best of intentions at global climate talks, they have failed to deliver on their promises. That’s because those pledges have relied on action from Congress, which has failed to follow up. In 1997, Vice President Al Gore was hailed as a climate leader at the United Nations summit in Kyoto, Japan, when he signed the historic Kyoto Protocol, the world’s first binding global climate-change treaty. But his credibility took a nosedive after he came home and the Senate voted not to ratify the treaty—ensuring that the U.S., the world’s biggest economy and largest historic global-warming polluter, would not be able to take the lead in combatting the problem.
Obama fell into the same trap in 2009 when he showed up at the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, at which nations hoped to forge a true follow-up treaty to Kyoto, one that would include real action from all the major economies. Obama pledged that the U.S. would act—the Senate would soon pass a sweeping climate bill, he said—and standing on that pledge, he attempted to muscle China and India into signing on to binding emissions cuts.
At the time, a Chinese negotiator shared with me his skepticism about Senate passage: “There’s no way Harry Reid will get 60 votes for that,” he said then.
He was right, and Obama’s promise of action from Congress was proven wrong. Senate Majority Leader Reid couldn’t even get all the Democrats in his chamber to vote for the bill, and he abandoned the effort.
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