Earn it in Copenhagen

12 December 2009

Just a few days after US President Barack Obama accepted his Nobel Peace prize, a spectre hangs over the Copenhagen negotiations – the Kyoto Syndrome. This is based on the received wisdom that the Clinton Administration blew it by agreeing to Kyoto without building the foundation for the US Senate to ratify the Protocol. In fact, the real lesson from Kyoto is that the Senate needs to move, not that the President should back off.

The Kyoto Syndrome inhibits the US delegation from making agreements on critical issues for fear of “getting too far ahead of Congress.” But some of these issues – like targets and financing – could torpedo the negotiations.

President Obama has said that he will commit the US to the goal passed by the House – a reduction in emissions of only about 4% from 1990 levels by 2020. That is embarrassingly low compared with the conclusion of leading scientists that industrialised nations should reduce emissions by at least 40% below 1990 levels.

Given this week’s formal finding by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that greenhouse gases endanger public health and safety, President Obama has the authority to establish a goal more in line with climate science and provide new and additional financing for climate action in developing countries, and to make sure the goal is met. If Congress fails to deliver a cap on emissions, President Obama can instruct EPA to implement a strong cap on domestic action.

If the US limits its negotiating position in Copenhagen to Congress’ comfort zone, we’re in for a potentially deadly result. Yet, President Obama can come to Copenhagen next week with a bold commitment to cut the United States emissions. Yes, he can.

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