Edward Cameron, Director, Partnership Development and Research, BSR

In 2007, Kevin Conrad, the special envoy for environment and climate change for Papua New Guinea, became a climate celebrity when he called on the United States to “lead or get out of the way” at the close of the UN climate summit in Bali. His comments captured a zeitgeist that continues to this day.

For the past two decades, the global community has looked to the United States to provide both leadership and ambition on climate change. This partly recognizes that American example, authority, and financing continue to influence the behavior of others and also that the United States has historically been the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Securing an international climate agreement and transitioning to a low-carbon economy will be nearly impossible without political and financial investment by the U.S. government. In other words, American action is a prerequisite to tackling global warming.

In this context, President Obama’s new Climate Action Plan is a timely and important expression of leadership. The plan directs the Environmental Protection Agency to develop carbon-pollution standards for both new and existing power plants. As these plants are the single largest source of carbon dioxide pollution in the United States, this measure has significance.

The president’s plan provides financial and regulatory support to energy innovations, with a focus on efficiency and  renewable energy sources. Beyond the carbon initiatives, it also recognizes the need to address other greenhouse gases by directing government agencies to focus on methane and calls for strengthening U.S. commitments to international efforts to reduce emissions. Importantly, the plan recognizes that some climate-change impacts are already upon us and looks at ways to climate-proof cities, agricultural land, public utilities, and infrastructure, thus protecting them from extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy. 

The details in the plan are important, but so is the direction. When Obama asserted that “we don’t have time for a meeting of the flat-earth society,” he firmly placed his authority behind the settled scientific consensus that says climate change is “unequivocal, accelerating, and human-induced.” This should ensure that our energy is directed away from the long-outdated issue of whether climate change is happening and toward how we should deal with it. Moreover, by sending a clear signal that action on climate change is inevitable, Obama is providing a powerful incentive to both the public and private sectors that we need to prepare for a low-carbon future. 

Now that Obama has offered leadership, we must collectively offer greater ambition, with more aggressive emissions reductions at the federal level, in cities, and also through the private sector. The unfortunate reality is that U.S. action continues to lag far behind other industrialized nations, is not commensurate with the scale of the climate challenge, and consequently places too much of the burden for reducing greenhouse gas emissions on the developing world.

For example, the plan pledges to reduce U.S. emissions by 17 percent compared to 2005 carbon levels by 2020. Most international plans call for reductions related to 1990 levels, and against that standard, the United States is actually only pledging to a 4 percent reduction. The European Union has committed to reduce the emissions of its 27 member states by 20 percent of 1990 levels by 2020, with a further promise to increase that reduction to 30 percent if other major economies agree to address their fair share of global emissions. Current U.S. action, while an important step in the right direction, is not yet a “fair share.” The president could demonstrate his commitment to ambition by reviving attempts on Capitol Hill to build a comprehensive, bipartisan, and legislative agenda on climate change to match the executive actions outlined in this plan.

During November’s election, President Obama borrowed a famous quote from Madeline Albright and remarked that the United States “remains the one indispensable nation.” This is true on climate more than any other issue. Obama’s commitment to leadership is a welcome and important first step, but increasing U.S. ambition is the truly essential ingredient to an immediate, long-term solution for tackling climate change during this decisive decade.