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Burney and Hampson: Obama Is In No Position To Lead The World On Climate

Derek Burney and Fen Osler Hampson, The Globe and Mail

For U.S. President Barack Obama, foreign policy is often more about symbolism than substance. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the run-up to the Paris conference on Climate Change in November. Mr. Obama is determined to bolster his legacy by devising a global consensus to tackle what he frequently describes as the “most serious threat” confronting planet Earth. However, he and the other world leaders in attendance may have difficulty translating that ominous challenge into a rational solution.

The degree of actual commitment will vary sharply depending on the state of economic development of the participants and the capacity of each to contribute without sacrificing their prospects for sustained economic development. That is precisely what precluded any pragmatic agreement at previous global negotiations on climate change.

China and India, in particular, are unlikely to make pledges with any immediate impact. They will look to the developed world to lead on reductions until such time as they and other developing nations have reached some degree of economic parity. That poses a herculean political challenge for many democratically elected leaders.

Mr. Obama’s most recent announcement of a “Clean Power Plan” for America calls for a reduction of power from coal to 27 per cent by 2030. Power generated by coal in the U.S. already dropped to 40 per cent last year from 50 per cent in 2005, largely because costs for natural gas have plummeted, enabling more energy to be derived from more efficient combined-cycle natural gas plants.

The President hopes to meet his goals through Executive Authority directives from the EPA. Yet he and his administration know that they will meet strenuous opposition from Congress and possibly the courts before any implementation begins. Sixteen states have already urged the White House to put the plan on hold. Critics fear that the President’s unilateral actions will increase power costs in America and thereby stunt economic growth with little appreciative impact on global emissions.

“Old King Coal” is a powerful political force in America, not inclined to go quietly into the night without a struggle. Market forces may in fact achieve more than regulations as evidenced by the record to date. Ironically, even as coal use for power is reducing in America, coal exports from the U.S. are on the increase, in part because of demand from China and India, and the carbon emissions from those exports alone surpass the total emissions from Canada’s oil sands – a perennial target for Mr. Obama’s obsession about climate change.

Similarly, and despite all the rhetoric about the risks posed by fossil fuels, the extraction of gas, oil and coal in America under Mr. Obama’s presidency has actually been greater than that of any previous president. That is rarely part of his talking points on climate change.

As Ed Rogers observed recently in the Washington Post, “Only Obama’s most committed apologists will herald this pseudo-plan as a legitimate achievement,” adding pointedly, “It is just a Potemkin gesture designed to produce another round of self-congratulatory cheers for a spent presidency.”

Further, because of record low oil prices, the trend to trucks and SUVs versus hybrids and electrical cars continues unabated in the U.S.

No wonder the G-7 in their most recent session looked to 2100 as the most plausible target for consensus on reductions of carbon emissions. To fashion any broader agreement in Paris, those in attendance may need an even longer time frame. That is why the impact of any accord will likely be more theatrical than real. The pied piper in Paris, whoever he or she may be, will need more than a magic pipe to attract a following.

By cutting a side deal with Japan, contrary to NAFTA on auto content, U.S. negotiator Michael Froman showed disdain for both Canada and Mexico, and bungled what had been intended as the final round of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

When American presidents fail to manage relations constructively with immediate neighbours, one is left to wonder about the manner in which they can handle global challenges, including climate change.

Derek Burney was Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. from 1989 to 1993. Fen Osler Hampson is a distinguished fellow and director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University.

The Globe and Mail, 18 August 2015