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Welcome change of course

Jens Thurau / reJune 3, 2014

Barack Obama seems determined to act, announcing the US will seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its coal power plants by one third. That could inspire others to similar measures, writes DW's Jens Thurau.

Jens Thurau (Foto: D. Engels/DW)
Image: DW/D. Engels

Finally! Obama is taking action. If recent reports are accurate, then the US is now turning serious on tackling climate change - and not just with bold proclamations or speeches by former Vice President Al Gore, but with concrete reductions of its emissions.

If the reductions do come to pass, the rather hopeless UN climate conferences could become exciting again. In recent years, they generally unfolded as follows: scientists issued increasingly dire warnings concerning the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions, while representatives of the nearly 190 UN members stood around shrugging their shoulders. Though it also failed, the Copenhagen summit in 2009 represents the last serious attempt at countering climate change with a new and ambitious treaty.

Overcoming skepticism

At the time, the EU member states had to look on powerlessly as the American president, together with Chinese and Indian leaders, agreed on an utterly weak document - without binding reduction targets and without vision. Barack Obama was also president then. The story went that he wanted more ambitious targets, but that Congress would have blocked any serious moves toward climate protection. His hands were said to be tied.

For years, that was indeed true: in the eyes of the Republicans and many Democrats, too, climate protection was not to be taken seriously. Reports on human-driven climate change were mocked as the ravings of an eco-mafia. Whispers from climate skeptics and from lobbyists for the powerful oil and coal industries blocked any number of initiatves. The US has never ratified the old climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, although the country helped broker it in 1997. One reason was that American politicians simply did not want to submit to international agreements.

Since Copenhagen, all of the UN climate meetings have been marked by failure. Leaders from China, India and other emerging economies such as Brazil and South Africa expressed willingness to accept a new treaty as a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, but only if the US would finally institute effective climate protection measures. Many states used the American hand-wringing to distract from their own inactivity. Meanwhile, the Europeans - the self-proclaimed pioneers of climate protection - have unsuccessfully tried to mediate. Finally, in an act of desperation, everyone decided to set a new date: a convention in 2015 in Paris is supposed to result in a new agreement with green house gas reduction targets for all countries, even the US, China and so on … but nobody really seemed to believe it would happen.

As such, climate experts were skeptical when Obama discussed climate protection at length during his speech at the start of his second term in January 2013. That didn't change even when he announced thorough measures soon thereafter. Now, it seems like he's getting serious.

A tricky maneuver

Of course, the catch with this initiative is that Obama wants to bypass Congress. The plan is for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enforce emissions reductions by way of a new set of rules. Nonetheless, the president can count on a major conflict with the Republicans and the energy industry. But there's movement there, too, on the issue - if only because climate change will be back in the headlines. Discussion about the effects of emissions only really emerges in the wake of damage by storms like Hurricane Sandy in 2012 - or when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change publishes alarming reports.

At the most recent, largely overlooked climate conference in Warsaw, experts began to worry. They started suggesting that if the upcoming conference in Paris fails, then international climate protection under the auspices of the UN - efforts which began in 1992 at a summit in Rio - is finished. As of today (02.06.2014), though, there is hope on the horizon again.