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Obama at the Copenhagen endgame: Climate experts’ forum

Mindy Lubber of Ceres answers the question, 'What do you think the impact will be of US President Barack Obama’s decision to attend the summit at the end of the conference rather than the early stages?'
by FT Energy SourceFinancial Times Posted on Dec 05, 2009
FT Energy Source is posting a daily question for our panel of expert commentators. Below, guest panellists Mindy Lubber of CERES, Robert Stavins of Harvard University, Jeremy Leggett of Solar Century and Julian Morris of the Policy Network respond to today’s question:

Q: What do you think the impact will be of US President Barack Obama’s decision to attend the summit at the end of the conference rather than the early stages?

A: Jeremy Leggett: By deciding to arrive for the endgame, Obama has opened space for a miracle. Obama does not know for sure that he can get his current best offer past an obstructionist Senate, and he will need to do a lot better than a 17 per cent cut of 2005-level emissions by 2020 if he is lead the way to a potential salvation movement for small-island nations like Kiribati and the Maldives.

But will he try? If he does, he will have to hope for two things: first, that global outrage can shame Senatorial climate-change deniers into ratifying a treaty with teeth in the year ahead, and second, that the signal so sent can push markets in the survival technologies beyond serial tipping points.

Those of us who work with the survival toolkit, in the clean-tech sector, suffer the frustration of knowing these technologies can be mobilised far faster than most people think.

Obama’s announcement leaves me torn about what to hope for from the summit. Dare we hope that our collective survival reflex, when it comes, can embrace even the most low-lying of poor nations?

Or should we recognize the “realpolitik” of divided America, and accept that the sad and misguided thinking so evident wherever coal and oil interests lie limits us to supporting the best that Obama’s advisors think he can do, in terms of getting a treaty past the Senate as it stands?

To settle for the latter involves a deadly corollary. At three degrees of global temperature rise, all nations will be playing Russian roulette. Such warming, as many scientists have told us, not least in America, can awaken the sleeping amplifiers of global warming known as feedbacks, of which methane under the melting tundra is perhaps the most terrifying.

Jeremy Leggett is founder and executive chairman of Solarcentury, a solar energy company, and is an ambassador of the Global Observatory at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen.

A: Robert N. Stavins: The decision is important, because it increases the likelihood of a significant outcome from the negotiations, but not for the reason most people may think. This is a matter of what is called “endogeneity” in economic analysis, that is, there is causality in both directions. That’s a bit cryptic, so let me be explicit.

Although it is true that President Obama’s presence on the concluding day of the negotiations (when – taking Kyoto in 1997 as an example – some of the key deals are finally struck) can have some influence, it is even more true that this decision by the White House signals that the Administration has reason to believe that there will be a visibly successful outcome of the Copenhagen talks.

His initial decision to visit the negotiations the previous week would have shielded the President – to a considerable degree – from any embarrassment and bad publicity if the negotiations were to fall apart. (The President does not need to fly back from Copenhagen a second time having failed on his mission; his attempt to bring the Olympic games to Chicago is still fresh in the minds of the international press.)

The key outstanding question is whether the outcome provides a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action, not simply some notion of immediate, albeit highly visible triumph. On this, please see my op-ed in today’s Boston Globe.

Robert N. Stavins is Albert Pratt Professor of Business & Government, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University Director, Harvard Environmental Economics Program

Mindy Lubbers, CERES: President Obama made the right decision in moving his Copenhagen appearance to later in the meeting, when he’ll be there alongside a larger group of world leaders. That’s a strong message to the world that the U.S. and the President are serious about being a driving force behind a deal.

Unfortunately – and this takes nothing away from the wisdom of Mr. Obama’s Copenhagen timing but is very much tied to his prospects for success there – the President faces his biggest climate and energy policy challenge back home. He must drive the point home to the Congress, via America’s underemployed Main Street, that the path to tomorrow’s clean energy economy lies in getting moving on launching that economy domestically – via strong legislation.

Businesses across the spectrum, along with major investors representing trillions of dollars in assets, have been increasingly vocal in recent weeks about the need for strong U.S. policy now. They are already voting with their investment dollars – by taking them elsewhere. A lack of clear market signals in America, such as a price on carbon pollution, leaves them skittish about investing here.

Mr. Obama missed an opportunity to make that very case to lawmakers last week when he launched his “White House to Main Street” jobs tour in the state of Pennsylvania, but neglected to visit the Gamesa wind turbine plant there where the layoff of nearly half of its 280 workers had just been announced. The company’s director of external affairs told the New York Times that clean energy operations are contracting in the U.S. because “manufacturers, developers, utilities, financiers – they don’t see the legislative pieces that they’re all hoping for to help the industry move forward (in the U.S.).”

America’s workers are hurting, with 10 percent unemployed and many more underemployed, and the President must tell lawmakers that if they dither on strong legislation they are missing an opportunity to relieve the pain of a so-far jobless recovery anytime soon. But even more importantly a failure to act now bodes ill for America’s long-term competitiveness.

And so, with jobless workers by his side, Mr. Obama should forcefully remind the Congress of what he knows to be true: that businesses and investors are already channeling their money and their jobs for clean energy industries to Germany, to China, and to a host of other countries that have well and truly launched themselves into the global race to build a clean energy economy.

So I hope the President will deliver the message of that Gamesa executive to his own Congress: Put the legislative pieces together, and quickly.

And if Mr. Obama can move U.S. legislators to act it will immeasurably strengthen his hand – and the world’s prospects — in Copenhagen to boot.

Mindy S. Lubber is president of Ceres and director of the Investor Network on Climate Risk, a network of 80 U.S. and European institutional investors with $8 trillion in collective assets focused on the business impacts of climate change.

Julian Morris: When he was elected a little over a year ago, President Obama promised “hope” and “change”. Yet, since coming to power, he has done little to change the status quo and his poll ratings have fallen.

So it is not surprising that he should seek a new arena in which to enhance his public image.

This week, Obama will pick up his Nobel peace prize. He will no doubt seek to bask in the associated fanfare. And perhaps he will emphasise that he has a duty to fulfil the promise for which the prize was awarded by relating it to the 2007 awardees, Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in the hope  that this will change his own political fortunes for the better.

This brings us to what impact Obama might have on Copenhagen. In the US, international treaties must be ratified, which in most cases means approved by the Senate.

In 1997, prior to the UN climate change conference in Kyoto, the Senate passed a resolution – by 95 votes to 0 – that the US should not be a signatory to any agreement which would seek to limit or reduce the US’s greenhouse gas emissions or result in serious harm to the US economy.

In spite of the fact that the Kyoto protocol clearly violated the first condition probably the second, President Clinton signed it; unsurprisingly, it was never submitted to the Senate for ratification and George W. Bush eventually rejected it.

Over the past several months, Obama administration officials, their counterparts in the EU and several EU states (including Britain) have sought to persuade developing countries to commit to binding restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. At present, it appears that while China and India in particular are committed to reducing the carbon intensity of production, they are not willing actually to limit emissions per se. This is likely to be the major stumbling block to a global agreement to limit emissions.

Julian Morris is the executive director of International Policy Network, whose work is guided by a belief that free enterprise is able to harness human potential better than any other arrangement.

Read the post at Financial Times

Meet the Expert

Andrew Logan

Since joining Ceres in 2002, Andrew has launched and directs two program areas for the organization. The first focuses on working with investors to engage the oil sector on key sustainability issues including climate change, biodiversity and water. Andrew's second area of focus is the insurance sector, particularly the role that insurers could play in encouraging solutions to climate change.

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