After decades of being a climate villain, as one of the biggest emitters with the most denial-ridden politics and a trail of broken promises to international partners, the United States can finally play the climate hero at crucial upcoming United Nations climate talks in Paris.
The past isn't pretty. The U.S. has long been responsible for more carbon emissions than any other country on the planet. And even though China overtook the U.S. in annual emissions in 2006, we remain the top cumulative contributor to man-made global warming since 1990, when governments were becoming aware of climate change.
The chief political factor limiting America's ability to take meaningful action has been increasingly entrenched denialism among one of our two dominant parties. "The U.S. Republican Party is an anomaly," as Sondre Båtstrand of the University of Bergen in Norway noted in a recent study. It's the only major conservative party in the world to deny outright the legitimacy of climate science. "Most of them support climate measures, even in the form of state interventions in the market economy," Båtstrand wrote of the parties he studied worldwide.
The more right-wing members of the party, including the party's leading presidential candidate, Donald Trump, and the head of the House Science Committee, will tell you climate change is an elaborate hoax perpetrated by thousands of climate scientists worldwide.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has had trouble delivering on past global commitments, efforts which were often complicated by Congress. Bill Clinton secured a deal in Kyoto in 1997, but Congress torpedoed it before it could be finalized; Obama hoped to bring a cap-and-trade law to Copenhagen, but the bill never even made it to the floor of the Senate for a vote.
But now, after years of failed efforts, the U.S. finally has a chance to turn its record around. And the domestic change comes just as everything is aligning globally to make the seemingly impossible possible—getting the entire world to reckon with the planet's chief existential crisis. Paris, experts hope, will be the beginning of the end of the climate crisis. And for once, the U.S. is positioned to play a leading role in finding a solution.
The transformation began when Obama decided to give up on Congress and use executive authority to pursue his international climate agenda, regardless of what those denialist Republicans had to say. The final piece in what has now been revealed to be a much larger puzzle fell into place last Friday, when Obama killed the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that's been in the review process at the State Department for the last seven years.
Much of the debate in recent years has centered around how much pollution the pipeline would or would not produce and how many jobs it would or would not create. But in the end, none of that much mattered.
AMERICA'S NEW CLIMATE COMMITMENT
Without a doubt, there was a scientific argument against Keystone. Michael Mann, distinguished professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, says the pipeline is important to limiting global warming to the key target of two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. "Keystone alone could give us the better part of a half a degree celsius of warming at a time when we’ve already warmed a half a degree and there's probably another half degree of warming built in," Mann says. "Any one contribution alone is enough to put us over the two degree limit, and from that standpoint, it does matter with regard to stabilizing the climate."
But ultimately, with Paris on the horizon, it seems geopolitics trumped science. "While the permitting decision involves weighing many different policy considerations," the State Department's Keystone ruling reads, "a key consideration at this time is that granting a Presidential Permit for this proposed Project would undermine U.S. climate leadership and thereby have an adverse impact on encouraging other States to combat climate change and work to achieve and implement a meaningful global climate agreement."
The administration clearly had Paris in mind and has no qualms saying so. In his announcement, Obama noted America has a significant role to play in the upcoming global climate talks and that "approving this project would have undercut that global leadership." And Secretary of State John Kerry said point-blank that the decision "could not be made solely on the numbers," adding that "the critical factor" in his determination was that "moving forward with this project would significantly undermine our credibility to continue leading the world in combatting climate change." In a briefing with reporters, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest seemed incredulous he was even being asked to connect the dots. "It seems obvious to me that the authors of this report were mindful of the upcoming international meeting to discuss climate change," he said.
Keystone may be good politics for the White House domestically as well. The announcement landed on the same day as a strong jobs report and at a time when gas costs just $2.20 a gallon, eliminating the most obvious lines of Republican attack. And yet the president seems decidedly less interested in domestic politics than in accomplishing something on the world stage.
He'd rather negotiate with China and India than Republicans; the Chinese may have their own interests, but at least they'll play ball. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers are actively trying to undermine international climate talks; Republican aides, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s energy advisor, Neil Chatterjee, have reportedly been reaching out to foreign officials to convince them the president's climate promises are on shaky legal footing and could be undone.
OBAMA'S LONG PLOT TO CIRCUMVENT CLIMATE DEADLOCK
Washington has a history of not keeping its word. At the Kyoto conference in 1997, for instance, countries took pledges to cut emissions with the understanding that wealthier nations would take pledges first. Other countries did so—but not the U.S., which couldn't get its target ratified by Congress (the vote in the Senate was a resounding 95–0). "That history remains very fresh for some countries," says the World Wildlife Fund's Lou Leonard, who's been attending these U.N. climate conferences for years.
Now, the Obama administration is working overtime to try to re-assure the globe that Washington has changed its ways—or at least effectively figured out how to sidestep the roadblocks.
If Obama needed Congress to sign off on the emissions cuts that he has already promised to the world—domestic emissions reductions of 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025—he'd be doomed. Instead, he's used every political tool at his disposal to circumvent Congress and mastermind a plot to save the world.
“I think it's very clear that the administration has elevated this to an extremely high level within their overall agenda, both domestically and from a foreign policy perspective," Leonard says. "That’s never happened before and that’s really important.”
Everything has been leading to this moment, starting as far back as 2011, when Obama announced his fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. But Leonard tells me he thinks the big moment was the announcement of Obama's Climate Action Plan at Georgetown in 2013. While headlines focused on his use of executive authority to clamp down on power plant emissions, Leonard notes it came just months before the U.S. needed to report on its progress on emissions commitments made years earlier at the climate summit in Cancun.
"At the time people were more focused on what that plan meant for the United States, but really it was a signal to the world that we have a plan to meet our target.”
Next, Obama started arranging meetings with world leaders to shore up support for emissions-cutting measures ahead of the Paris summit. The most significant agreement came around this time last year, when China pledged to peak emissions by 2030 as part of a broader deal. In August, the administration finalized its rules for reducing carbon pollution from power plants as part of the EPA's Clean Power Plan, which will be instrumental in enabling the U.S. to meet its emission goals in Paris. Later that month, Obama traveled to Alaska to highlight the impacts of climate change in the state. And in late September, he hosted Pope Francis at the White House, where thousands gathered to hear the most important religious leader on the planet make a powerful moral case for collective climate action.
Each was a carefully positioned piece of a larger puzzle to position the U.S. for success in Paris.
Meanwhile, the landscape has never been more favorable for action. There's the fact that technology is advancing; that the world is waking up to the reality of climate change; that there's growing recognition for the need to finance clean energy in developing countries; that the talks are now structured so each country submits its own proposals, instead of having them dictated from on high.
Shyla Raghav, director of climate policy for Conservation International, has been attending annual so-called Conference of the Parties climate meetings since 2007, and she has never been more optimistic about global cooperation on climate—especially given the recent bilateral agreement with China. “I think the U.S. is in a difficult position but it has taken steps to demonstrate that they’re on board and willing to work with countries to make this agreement a success,” she says. "I’m quite hopeful we’ll see an agreement that serves as the basis for our actions for years to come.”
“Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change” is Pacific Standard’s aggressive, year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.