By Lucia Green-Weiskel

In the last couple of months, it has become clear that climate change, one of the central issues of President Obama campaign in 2008, has been all but forgotten.

Over the summer, despite a lot of talk that lead us to believe the opposite, we were told that there would be no climate bill this year that will put a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. Climate legislation is now officially dead. This came on the heels of last year’s UN Framework Convention on Climate Change COP15 meeting in Copenhagen in which 110 heads of state met with the intention of striking a global deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions failed to produce a deal. Obama and his US delegation failed to make any new commitments and were seen by critics as an obstacle to progress rather than a help. The story is slightly brighter at the EPA, where a host of new regulatory powers will help reduce emissions (they don’t take effect until 2011). But it doesn’t go far enough. Both the US congress and the international community through the UNFCCC must take firm action to fight climate change before we will see any meaningful changes. Both bodies of governance, in large part, are dependent on cues from Obama’s leadership.

Going back two years, it is striking to see the change of Obama’s tone. Fresh from his success on Election Day 2008, Obama addressed a group of environmentalists assembled at Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Governors’ Global Climate Summit held in Los Angeles on November 18 (I was there with my colleagues from iCET and was interviewed by This American Life about the address). He said with a tone of assertion and confidence, “Few challenges facing America and the world are more urgent than combating climate change. The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear.” People swooned and became giddy. What a transition from the Bush years! He continued, “Once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will engage vigorously and help lead the world in a new era to combat climate change….Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option.”

But, ‘delay’ is actually the best word one can use to describe the Obama climate policy as the first half of his first term nears a close. And meanwhile, as was predicted by climate scientists, greenhouse gas emissions are accumulating in the atmosphere at rapidly increasing rates causing potentially catastrophic changes to our global and local climate. For example, July of this year was very close to being the hottest month ever recorded in New York (if it were not for the last day of July being significantly cooler, it would have set a record).

The problem with Obama’s negligence in this case goes beyond not fulfilling a campaign promise. By not acting right away, and “engaging vigorously” in climate change politics, Obama has missed crucial opportunities. These missed opportunities will weigh heavily on Obama as he assembles his reelection campaign:

  1. Green technology & innovation – By failing to set positive policy signals, innovation in green technology continues to lag behind other countries such as China, Japan and the EU.
  2. New jobs – Without firm policies, the green jobs that were promised on Obama’s campaign trail will not materialize.
  3. Foreign policy – Leadership on climate change could smooth out rough edges in Obama’s foreign policy, especially with China, which is waiting for American leadership on the issue.
  4. Multilateralism – Obama promised a more multilateral and diplomatic foreign policy, yet he has failed to cooperate with other countries at the UNFCCC.
  5. Demonstrating that he is not controlled by Big Oil – Obama criticized Bush on this point, yet so far has not departed from his predecessor in this area.

In November 2010, the UNFCCC will host the next in the series of international climate talks, the COP16 to be held in Cancun, Mexico. Even without legislation in Congress, Obama can and must make some meaningful commitment to reduce emissions in the US before this event. Two ways he could do this would be to enforce Executive Order 13514, which requires federal agencies to reduce their emissions and tell the EPA to reduce require stricter GHG emission reductions for the biggest emitters and to regulate all emitters (not just the biggest ones) under the Clean Air Act. Let’s hope he acts quickly because November is not that far off.