Barack to the future? Obama confuses key climate dates

Feature story - December 3, 2009
As Barack Obama announced the US position for the Climate talks in Copenhagen, we felt a bit of an anti-climax between the buzz and the actual numbers. Maybe a time portal opened and Obama is living in an alternate reality?

Obama first went to Copenhagen to support Chicago for the Olympics. How about going for a win this time around?

China leading, the US lagging - that's not quite the impression spin doctors from the White House were hoping to give when they finally released their numbers on emission reduction. Who is saying "Yes we can" now?

Of baselines and shallow commitments

Spin doctors were hard at work after the announcement - presenting this as a game changer. If you listened only to the White House, you could easily believe that Obama single-handedly saved the climate while everyone else stood around on the sidelines. The truth is, these are the numbers of the Waxman-Markey bill, which is not and has never been enough to really combat the devastating effects of climate change.

The US keeps hiding behind weak numbers, made to appear stronger by shifting the "baseline" date to which they're compared. A reduction of 17 percent of 2005 levels is really a reduction of four or five percent of 1990 levels, the base year all other developed countries are using.

Using 2005 as a base year is the kind of cheap math trick we expect from the Bush administration, not from a President who was elected promising he was going to get us out of the climate crisis. Moving the goal posts to pretend you're scoring is a nice way to spin your speeches, but science doesn't work that way. We can't change the science - we have to change the politics, which is not the way Obama is going right now.

In order to keep global temperature increases below two degrees, developed countries have to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from the base year 1990. Anything less, and we face catastrophic climate change. The target of 40 percent emission reduction on a baseline of 1990 for industrialised countries is taken from the International Panel on Climate Change's scenario. This is not a political target, it is the minimum needed to keep the global average temperature at a safe level. You can't negotiate with science.

Good efforts, but try harder

On the other side, China, part of the group of developing country (the ones the Obama administration keeps insisting they're waiting for) offered targets that actually mean something to avoid catastrophic climate change - a reduction of carbon emissions relative to economic growth by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 also with a base year of 2005, though those numbers are still not enough. "Given the urgency and magnitude of the climate change crisis, China needs stronger measures to tackle climate change," said Ailun Yang of Greenpeace China. "This is a significant announcement at a very important point in time. But China could do more."

"By taking on a 40-45 percent carbon intensity target, China will have to take considerable efforts to decouple its economic growth from the increase in its carbon emissions. However, given the urgency of climate change, this target is not likely to accelerate China's clean energy revolution as quickly as it should be."

Barack to the future 

Update, December 5th, 2009 Good news: Obama got the message and has changed his plans. He will attend the final day of the conference, where we hope he'll be providing the right leadership for the right deal. He needs to move the US emissions targets and financial committments to match the task of stopping ruanaway climate change.

Another major announcement was made last week: Barack Obama is planning on attending the Copenhagen summit... on December 9th. Last time he showed up in Copenhagen, it was also a bit early, but as he is getting closer to the right date, we're keeping our fingers crossed for third time lucky. Otherwise we might start to worry about a possible break in the space-time continuum which could explain why Obama seems to be confusing 2005 with 1990, December 9th with December 17th and Washington, DC with Copenhagen.

A Royal State dinner is organised in Copenhagen on the 17th, and it'd be such a shame for Obama to miss it.  Many heads of State have announced they will come already, and it hardly makes sense for Obama to miss the party. The last one to announce his presence was Silvio Berlusconi, adding to the long list of heads of state who have proved they take the threat of climate change remotely seriously.

Wanted: Climate leaders

In the midst of this, it appears that the climate leaders are not where you expect them to be. Obama, who had brought hope last year, is bringing nothing but disappointment in matters climatic. In the developed countries group, the EU has the best position, but it's still not enough. To find anyone leading the way, we have to look towards developing countries like Brazil, China, India, South Africa or Indonesia - or even better, towards the Maldives, the only country so far to pledge to go truly carbon neutral.

The ball is in the Obama camp now. Time to rise up to the challenge.

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