USCAN: What a ‘climate reset’ should look like for Obama administration

• December 1, 2012
Creative Commons Barack Obama

Creative Commons: Barack Obama

We want our children to live in an America that is not burdened by debt, that is not weakened by inequality, that is not threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” – President Obama, November 2012

Those words were spoken during President Obama’s victory speech on election night. The President appears to understand that climate change is a legacy issue that was not adequately addressed during his first term in office. While US emissions are decreasing slightly – both as a result of the Administration’s policies on renewable energy and vehicle fuel economy standards and because of sharply lower natural gas prices that have reduced coal use for electricity generation – it is unlikely that without additional regulation or legislation that the US will meet its 2020 emissions reduction target.

The President’s reelection, coming on the heels of another year of record setting weather impacts, including super storm Sandy, droughts, wildfires, crop failures and retreat of Arctic Sea ice, provides ample opportunity for the Administration to reset their approach to the international climate change negotiations. The need for action to avoid warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels has also been amply illustrated by a host of well respected institutions in recent weeks, including reports from the CIA, World Bank, UNEP and PwC (Pricewaterhousecoopers).

The Obama Administration and the UN Climate Talks in Doha, Qatar:

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks in Doha, Qatar, which run through December 7th, provide the Obama Administration with the first postelection opportunity to demonstrate that it will take a more aggressive approach to addressing climate change in the President’s second term. Conventional wisdom has held that, faced with a recalcitrant Congress, the Administration’s hands are tied with regard to making progress in the UN climate talks.

While action by Congress is certainly required in some areas — such as ratification and/or implementation of any new treaty or other legal instrument resulting from negotiations over the next three years, and increasing appropriations for support of developing country mitigation and adaptation actions — there are many things the administration can do to move the international process forward that don’t require Congressional action.

Listed below are three key issues at stake in the international climate negotiations, as well as specific recommendations for actions, big and small, that the U.S. negotiating team could take which would result in a more productive atmosphere at the talks and concrete progress towards a new legally binding agreement by 2015.


The U.S. needs to present a consistent position and positive vision on the principles of equity and “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR). If the U.S. believes that the approach based on historical responsibility put forward by a number of developing countries is wrong, they need to propose alternative ways forward. They could start by taking two steps in Doha:

• The U.S. team needs to propose their own principles on how to manage differentiation within the Convention. This process will not work unless it is fair to countries at different stages of development. How would the U.S. replace the current division between developed and developing countries with an approach that is more dynamic and respectful of different national circumstances?

•If we have learned anything in the past year, it is that the equity debate cannot be silenced. The U.S. team needs to alter the perception that their goal is to shut down the conversations on equity and remove all references to CBDR from the Durban negotiating track. This perception is alienating other governments and civil society. Take the initiative by proposing an open and constructive way to discuss a new approach to equity in the 2015 agreement.

U.S. Emissions Reduction Targets

It is helpful that U.S. negotiators have indicated that the administration is committed to meeting President Obama’s pledge of reducing U.S. emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, even in the absence of Congressional action on national climate legislation. But even if achieved, this target is not as ambitious as it should be, given the urgency of staying below 2 degrees C. Here are some additional steps the U.S. should take here in Doha on this front:

• Acknowledge that based on the current projections, the 17 percent target is unlikely to be met without further policy action, the most important being the promulgation of carbon emission standards for existing power plants by the EPA . Given this fact, the U.S. should provide more clarity on how it intends to meet its 2020 commitment;

• Acknowledge that greater ambition is needed, and that the U.S. will make every effort to exceed the 17 percent emissions reduction goal;

• The U.S. team should also articulate the concrete steps the administration is planning to take in order to put the country on track to nearly eliminate its emissions by 2050, and indicate when it will be prepared to put forward a comprehensive low-carbon development plan.

Climate Finance
In Doha the U.S. needs to make clear that it remains committed to meeting its fair share of the Copenhagen pledge of mobilizing $100 billion in climate finance per year by 2020, including taking steps now toward achieving that goal. The administration should publicly reaffirm its clear commitment to the President’s Global Climate Change Initiative, together with the following actions:

• Commit to maintain at least the current levels of U.S. public climate finance in the near term and set a clear trajectory for ramping up U.S. finance between now and 2020 for bilateral and multilateral programs, including efforts to create an effective Green Climate Fund;

• Support innovative approaches to generate new and additional public finance to help developing countries confront the climate crisis, such as mechanisms in the shipping and aviation sectors, a financial transaction tax, and other measures;

• Bring concrete proposals this coming year to the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Maritime Organization for fair, effective measures that limit emissions and generate resources for climate finance;

• Make a commitment to ensure that climate change is integrated throughout the United States’ development assistance portfolio in meaningful and transparent ways.


The actions outlined above would send a very positive signal to delegations from around the world that the U.S. is serious about addressing global warming. They would serve as concrete steps which would contribute to the momentum needed to reach agreement on a new international climate treaty by 2015. The talks in Doha provide the Administration with a much needed opportunity to reassert American leadership over one of the defining issues of this and future generations.

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About the Author

Karl Burkart is the Digital Communications Director for the GCCA, the Global Call for Climate Action, and TckTckTck, a network of 400+ diverse organizations working around the world for greater action on the growing problem of climate change. Karl also blogs on technology and the environment for a variety of publications. You can follow him on Twitter @greendig.

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