And Then Came Obama: Not the Change They’ve Been Looking For

Poznan, Poland: Greenpeace activists atop the Poznan railway station
Photo credit: Getty Images

Everyone from the United Nations to Greenpeace is irritated and impatient at the U.S.’s refusal to sign on to commitments to lower greenhouse gases at even greater levels than prescribed by the soon-to-be-defunct Kyoto Treaty.


At last week’s Pozan, Poland U.N. Global Warming “Framework” Conference, the White House stalled, wanting to leave global warming and climate change decisions to the next administration – and team Obama waffled, shocking the international community, which expects great strides into curbing greenhouse gases from the new President. Obama, who now must work within the shell of a Nation in financial distress and a possible Republican filibuster on Cap and Trade, will begin administrating in the real world.

The Washington Post is quoting an unnamed “top U.N. negotiator” on global warming, as remaining “confident that the United States could sign on to a global pact next year even without congressional action.” Assuming the unnamed source is NOT Senator John Kerry, Kerry is saying exactly the same thing from Poland this week.

It will be like the difference between night and day,” Kerry, of Massachusetts, said of Obama’s enthusiasm for action against climate change after what he said were eight years of inaction under President George W. Bush.

He told Reuters support in the United States for climate action was strong enough to let Obama sign up for emissions cuts under a U.N. pact to be agreed in Copenhagen in late 2009 even if the Senate had not by then agreed matching U.S. climate laws.

In another interview, Kerry says that passing Cap and Trade will probably not be possible because:

…political and regional disputes — along with the complex legislative process — will make passage of a cap-and-trade bill before the COP 15 meeting in Copenhagen next December highly unlikely.

So, the U.S. will not have time to pass necessary laws, but any ratification of U.S. law isn’t necessary anyway, – and any opportunity for a filibuster by more conservative Senate thinkers isn’t pertinent. Obama can do it without Congress, and even congressional aides are quoted as saying:

passage of legislation before Copenhagen was not needed to have the United States sign on to a new global climate deal.

The U.N. Climate Change Conference in Poznan, Poland and Bali have been one drama after the other, beginning with the Bali conference one year ago – explained by the Wonk Room’s guest blogger, Andrew Light:

According to Light, the U.S. delegation refused to sign on to the Bali Roadmap. At that conference:

(1) [would have] ended in utter failure if not for Al Gore and a few others who saved the conference by convincing outraged delegates to wait one year for a new administration ready to join the world community.”

(2) The pervading fear here that the Obama administration will not embrace the next iteration of the Kyoto Protocol climate change treaty, set to be decided a year from now at the next UN climate meeting in Copenhagen, because they will not have a national cap and trade agreement through Congress by that time.

Another report had the conference secretariat leaving in tears:

(3)…a direct intervention of the UN Secretary-General and the Indonesian President to appeal to the countries to make a final deal, a seemingly recalcitrant United States holding the entire meeting to ransom, before several dramatic and angry appeals led finally to its announcement that it would “join the consensus.

(4) [now in Poznan Poland] And then came Obama. Expectations here couldn’t have been higher that the results of the US election were a complete game changer for the next phase of the Kyoto process. Were they just wrong?

In this atmosphere of doubt and disappointment a session on Monday evening [advertised] as including Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Dick Lugar (R-IN) was understandably packed to the gills and dozens couldn’t get in the door.

With no official representatives here from the Obama transition team, and with Bush’s negotiators making sometimes bizarre pronouncements about Obama’s intentions or lack thereof, a message of clarity and hope from senior Obama advisors was a must see for this international audience.

Unfortunately what was delivered provided little by way of a reiteration of a message of hope or an assurance that waiting a year on the US to get its act together was a good idea. In fact, the take home from the session suggested an opposite conclusion.

For starters, Kerry, Lugar, and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) (also on the program) weren’t there. This was due to an unfortunate miscommunication between the conference secretariat and the event’s sponsors

Another conference secretariat mishap? Can this be, or is the reporting just confused between Bali and Poznan?

Drama continues as congressional aides dash most hopes:

Even after Annie Petsonk of Environmental Defense opened the session with a moving plea for how the US could still make progress in Copenhagen and move forward, especially with this president in the White House, the gathered congressional staffers were having none of it.

Each presentation offered more and more minutiae of the difficulties of how a bill becomes a law, culminating in Sen. Lugar’s aide Mark Helmke lecturing the audience on how the American Senate gives undue power to small states, thus offering the chance for tiny parts of the electorate dependent on the coal mining industry to thwart the millions of Californians yearning for an even closer relationship to the sun. [what???]

Light ends his report as follows:

Whatever one thinks about these difficulties the overwhelming impression of the audience leaving this session was clear: We [U.S.] weren’t the change they’ve been waiting for.