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US green revival

Kait BolongaroAugust 7, 2015

Obama's recent clean power rule has demonstrated a desire to tackle climate change in the US. It's a response to public pressure, taking market factors into account. But will this bring results for the Paris conference?

Klimaziele Rauch des Kohlekraftwerkes
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Lo Scalzo

Obama's announcement of a final rule to reduce carbon emissions on Monday (03.08.2015) drew international attention to the United States. The administration appears to have responded to a growing desire for politicians to take the fight against climate change more seriously. The American public has been demanding more government action as severe droughts and forest fires ravage the western US.

The 21st Conference of Parties in Paris this December will be the real test for this seemingly renewed American environmental consciousness. World leaders will be hoping to sign a new, legally binding international agreement on reducing emissions.

Although momentum toward taking action on climate change does appear to be building in the US, whether the US can truly lead in these negotiations remains uncertain.

Building political will

On the one side, Obama's new legislation is only one sign of mounting political will on tackling climate change. Environmental discussions are taking center stage in the Democrat nominee race.

Candidate Hillary Clinton has promised that 33 percent of the country's electricity will come from renewables by 2027. Senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton's opponent with a strong environmental record, has called climate change "the single biggest threat to our planet."

Barack Obama Washington USA Atom Iran
Barack Obama's announcement has been part of a broader push for green policiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Marovich

For Philip Wallach, a policy analyst at the Brookings Institute, this green surge is a strategy to appease public opinion ahead of elections in November 2016.

"[Democrats] think [climate] puts Republican candidates in an awkward position, where in order to satisfy some of their voter base, they're pressured to reject [climate] science," Wallach told DW.

Candidates for the Republican nomination were quick to criticize Obama's new regulations - but remained mum about plans to tackle climate change during recent debates.

Kyle Ash, a senior legislative representative for Greenpeace USA, said that while climate change politics have drastically improved in the US over the last few years, the current status quo - including Obama's new emissions reduction plan - is still too weak to effectively meet global targets.

"Overall, [Obama's emissions rule] is a huge disappointment," said Ash. "We need to get down as close to zero emissions as we can by 2050."

The Obama climate plan requires the nation's existing power plants to cut emissions 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

Economic factors also at play

On the business side, cheaper renewable energy and customer demand for greener products are also pushing the private sector to action.

Concentrated solar park in Ivanpah, California
American companies have gradually been building out more renewable energy facilitiesImage: Getty Images

Recently, 13 large corporations entered a partnership with the US government to reduce their emissions. Meanwhile, utilities companies are turning to cleaner and renewable energy alternatives to fossil fuels.

"It's a transformational moment in the US, both in the business sector and in politics," Jody Freeman, founding director of the Harvard Law School Environmental Law and Policy Program, told DW. "The push at the national level is a signal that is going to drive change in the private sector."

The role of public opinion

Americans continue to view climate change as an important issue. In a 2014 study by researchers at Yale University, 63 percent of Americans believe that climate change is happening, and 48 percent think it is caused mostly by human activity. The study's results also indicate overwhelming support in favor of renewable energy policies and regulations to reduce emissions.

The growing concern about climate change comes as the United States is faced with extreme weather conditions, including severe drought and wildfires on the West Coast and increasingly violent storms. According to Freeman, these weather fluctuations have changed some Americans' minds about the issue.

Americans are also becoming more vocal about their desire for the government to address climate change. In September 2014, hundreds of thousands marched in New York City to demand climate action.

New York Demonstration Flood Wall Street 22.9.2014
As many as 300,000 people participated in the People's Climate March in New York City September last yearImage: picture-alliance/AP/John Minchillo

For Kyle Ash, this is only a beginning before the Paris climate conference at the end of this year. "We are seeing increasing numbers of people in absolute terms pushing for climate policy," Ash told DW.

But Philip Wallach says that although a majority of Americans want to act to stop climate change, it remains a low priority for voters. "Certainly people think of climate as a very important moral cause for our time," said Wallach. "It's just not a top priority for most Americans by any means."

Ash sees a critical mass of citizens as important for pressuring the government to enact progressive green legislation. For example, democrats backtracked on their support for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline after public outcry.

Global implications

World leaders are hoping to sign a new legally binding and global treaty on climate in Paris. The new agreement would aim to limit global warming to below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius).

The United States has been reluctant to commit itself to legally binding international efforts to limit emissions - it never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the predecessor of the anticipated Paris agreement.

The country's past unwillingness to sign legally binding deals and failure to put forth concrete policy proposals domestically could represent stumbling blocks for potential US leadership on climate.

Freeman, however, does see the US as an important leader in the Paris talks. She believes that Obama's emissions rule adds "credibility" and shows that the US is serious about climate change.

For Philip Wallach, the COP21 will be more complicated for the US than Obama and his negotiators anticipate. He thinks the Obama administration will be trying to play a leadership role, "and basing a lot of their claims on the merit of this rule," he said.

Due to past failure to act on climate change, Ash is not sure the US could lead in Paris, and believes it would best remain in a neutral role. "Let other governments move forward to develop a treaty and set legally binding targets. We certainly hope the Obama administration would agree to it," he explained.

"If the administration won't agree to that, hopefully [the international community] can create a regime that would allow the US to join later when there's more political will from a future president."

It continues to be questioned, however, whether such a treaty will be established.