Obama, Hu and climate change: a question of who leads

What just happened? – it might be a good question to ask about the UN climate summit convened by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last Tuesday. “Not a lot” is the most likely answer.

Hu smiled …

The panda smiled and the world applauded, as The Times put it in a wholly downbeat assessment. President Hu Jintao made no specific commitments but he did say that China will now “endeavour” to reduce its carbon emissions and is aiming for a “notable” cut.

This is not without substance or basis. Chinese policy is now well established as making growth as green as possible and an assessment by HSBC earlier this year found that the green content of China’s anti-recession economic stimulus package is larger in absolute terms than any other government’s and is bigger as a percentage of the whole package than many governments who take pride in their green postures (graphic). So although the Chinese leader’s statement offered no specifics, China has a track record that indicates that some scale of carbon cuts has indeed been fed into policy and plans.

The problem, as everybody knows, and perhaps as many people over-know, is that China is committed to very high levels of growth – 8 to 10 per cent of GNI annually. Making that growth as green as possible is not exactly the same as opting for green growth. And endeavouring to make  a notable cut in carbon emissions is not the same as either achieving a notable cut or making a big enough cut, whether “big enough” is judged in terms of what the planet’s future needs from a country whose economy will be the world’s largest in little more than a decade, or whether it is judged in the narrower terms of what is politically necessary to get some kind of agreement to slow down global warming at the Copenhagen climate summit in December. 

But the key thing is Hu said just enough to breathe some life of hope into the otherwise steadily dimming prospects for getting a worthwhile deal in Copenhagen. Increasingly over the past few weeks, analysts have come to see a bilateral deal between the US and China as the key to the Copenhagen. If those two can sort out a deal, then the conference will be able to achieve an agreement; it won’t be an agreement on exactly how to cut emissions and to what level and on how to support adaptation to climate change in poor countries and with how much money – that’s too much to hope for – but it could be an agreement on how to move forward and find the real deal in the course of 2010.

… and who didn’t

 But the thing is that, metaphorically, Obama could not even raise a smile. Climate change legislation (the Waxman-Markey bill) is under pressure in the US; to be precise, it is under the pressure of being ignored. Senate majority leader Harry Reid has talked of putting it off until next year. That can still be taken as a pretty good indicator of how bogged down the Obama administration has become over climate change. The reasons are not hard to find.

Obama is committing no political capital into it because, as predicted months back, he is too busy fighting for health reforms and, for the next three weeks at least, figuring out what to do on Afghanistan. He has also just failed to improve the prospects of a peace deal between Israel and Palestine with completely non-productive meetings with Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas in New York on Tuesday. Haaretz reports (presumably with the blessing of administration insiders ) that Obama told off both Netanyahu and Abbas for dragging their feet. But domestic American politics are global theatre and the drip-drip away of Obama’s capital and credibility in the US finds worldwide resonance. Being told off by a president whose administration is being pushed around is not as scary as it should be.

This week, Obama has even been caned in the US for doing away with missile defence in central Europe when the decision he took, as explained by Robert Gates in the New York Times, was to deploy more anti-missile missiles and sooner than the Bush administration was planning to.

It must be hell doing politics in the US – you get smacked for doing the right thing, like trying to offer health care to an extra 50 million Americans, and then you get a second smacking for doing the wrong thing, like wasting billions on unproven defences against unlikely threats. And in both cases the misinterpretation of policy is extreme.


So if a bilateral US/China deal is key to getting something workable out of Copenhagen, the worry at the moment is the capacity of the US to deliver. There are some signs that the administration is now talking expectations down so far in background briefings that it risks being painted as an even greater obstacle to a worthwhile climate deal than Bush.

For the candidate who wanted to be the greenest President, and for the President who started out with a set of appointments of key officials that reflected that ambition, this would surely be a political failure of extraordinary proportions.

There are so many challenges on so many fronts and the administration undoubtedly has to prioritise, picking and choosing where to put its effort. Arguably, it has made its choices under the pressure of events rather than as part of strategic, planned approach. The problem with that is that, if so, it will have to keep re-prioritising and will consistently be reactive, unable to get on top of events, the political agenda or even the daily news cycle.

Picking health reform may well have been the right strategic choice – it is sorely needed and could probably only be done early if it were to be done at all – but doing so at the expense of climate change will gut both the administration’s international credibility and its claim for re-election in three years time.

Hope and leadership

The hope now must be that the low-key approach Obama took on climate change in New York this week is a temporary tactic. A deal with China that is not based on the Waxman-Markey Bill could be possible; there are actions the US can take for climate change that do not require enactment of that legislation as the legal basis.

And perhaps if Obama is removing himself from the picture, that is OK. If US negotiators continue talking with China, as they undoubtedly are doing, the contours of a bilateral deal could emerge in time. It does not necessarily need the President’s further personal attention – at least, not in detail.

The strange thing is that if that is a plausible scenario for rescuing Copenhagen, what is happening in US politics means it may only be possible if China steps up and takes the initiative.

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