As the UN Climate Summit approaches and countries begin to reveal their reduction commitments for the 21st United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris in 2015, all eyes are on the United States and President Obama. It has recently been reported that as part of the 2015 international negotiations, the President plans to seek an international binding agreement rather than a formal treaty that would require ratification from Congress. This means side stepping an increasingly unpopular and gridlocked Congress that would not be able to achieve a 2/3 Senate approval on climate. It is vital that the U.S. take a proactive role on climate even if it means desperate, but strategic measures on the part of the President. Here are 6 reasons that the U.S. should just step it up and lead on climate:
1. To incentivize China. China is the world’s largest carbon emitter and only 3 of 74 major cities met the country’s minimum air quality standards last year. The situation is bad for the environment, bad for people’s health, and an international climate change deal without China would be an ineffective one. In previous negotiations China was unwilling to make commitments due to U.S. lack of commitment. Although that sentiment still exists, the U.S. and China have been working together bilaterally and China has made progress at home by implementing pilot regional cap-and-trade systems. A national level system was also just announced for 2016. By implementing robust domestic climate policies and strongly signaling support for an international agreement, the U.S. can gain leverage and get China on board.
2. To redeem its green reputation. Unfortunately, the U.S. doesn’t boast the favorable environmentally conscious credentials that it used to a few decades ago. For example, the U.S. spearheaded early treaties with Canada and Mexico on boundary waters and migratory birds as well as orchestrated global agreements restricting trade in endangered species and protecting against ozone depletion. But when it comes to climate change, the biggest international environmental issue to date, national level politics have gotten in the way. The U.S. was one of the only countries who did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which would have meant binding carbon reductions at home. Europe on the other hand, has taken the lead in addressing environmental issues and continues to make strides. If the U.S. doesn’t come through on this next round of international negotiations, the green credentials will be lost and forgotten, if they haven’t been already.
3. Because Americans care about climate change. The support for climate action in the U.S. has only been increasing and the American public continues to voice the importance of taking climate change seriously. Although opinions on climate change are very tied to party lines, 2013 Pew study found that 40% of Americans said climate change was a major threat. And a threat needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, there are still climate deniers and individuals who are just not willing to act. These individuals create obstacles to acting on climate and are represented in Washington by Republican policymakers and Democrats tied to big oil. However, the number of people paying attention to climate and asking for the U.S. to make progress may increase after the highly anticipated People’s Climate March scheduled for September 21st, 2014 in New York City.
4. It’s the President’s chance to keep his word. Climate action was one of President Obama’s core campaign issues that voters acted on to put him into office. The administration has increasingly rolled out national level initiatives such as regulations on existing power plants and fuel efficiency standards. These efforts signal intentions to act seriously on climate, but they do not reach the extent that many had hoped for. It isn’t to say that the President hadn’t tried, because no matter where climate action efforts may originate from, they are met with resistance from lobbyists and Republican policymakers at each step of the way. However, since this is Obama’s second term and reelection isn’t a concern, he can exercise his executive order to move not only the nation, but the global climate agenda.
5. To reinvigorate the legitimacy of the United Nations. Over the past 20 years, the world has looked to the United Nations to formulate an international agreement on climate change. Unfortunately we have been greatly disappointed in what many see as one of the greatest potentials for the world to cooperate to fix a global problem. The lack of progress the UNFCCC has made in addressing climate change has left many disenchanted with the UN process, yet President Obama holds the opportunity to boost the UN’s reputation and credibility in being an effective global treaty-making entity by pushing forward in supporting and developing a successful climate treaty in Paris 2015.
6. To set precedence at home for future legal challenges. With the current opposition and lack of cooperation in Congress, many fear that any progress in climate policy in the U.S. will be undone when President Obama leaves office, or even if the Republicans win the Senate. Yet as the Supreme Court decisions in the past months have demonstrated, by implementing ambitious climate policies now can for future legal challenges. The Supreme Court has already upheld EPA’s regulation of carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act on three separate occasions. There most likely will be lawsuits against any type of climate policy Obama decides to enact, no exception to Obama’s recent regulation on power plant emissions. But if the Supreme Court continues to side with the EPA, the more precedence there will be for future legal challenges to such policies, thus institutionalizing climate policy.
Of course, there are more than 6 reasons that the U.S. should step it up and lead on climate but we really only need one: because climate change is the biggest challenge that the world has faced to date.