Detailed Actions to Restore America’s Global Leadership on Global Warming

Restoring America’s leadership on global warming is no easy task.  US leadership has been lost over a sustained period as the current Administration has failed to make progress on global warming.  (Sadly this is time we don’t have.)  So, becoming a leader isn’t something that can be done overnight, but it will need to start from day one.  President-elect Obama has already signaled that he will Restore American Leadership on Global Warming.  So, what more does he have to do? 

Well, a coalition of groups — including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) — has just released a detailed plan Transition to Green which outlines actions for the new Administration and Congress on environmental issues.  This plan covers a strategy for global warming (under the “crosscutting issues” header) and detailed recommendations for each of the key agencies that deal with environmental issues (including international global warming issues under the header “Department of State” and “Department of the Treasury”).

So, what are the main actions that the Administration and Congress can take to restore American leadership on global warming as the world works to get international agreement in Copenhagen, Denmark (December 2009)?  Here are our recommendations (check out other posts from NRDC staff here). 

The US needs to demonstrate action by setting mandatory limits on global warming pollution through new legislation and implementation of existing laws.  This would include working with Congress to pass legislation in 2009 that establishes a mandatory limit that reduces US global warming pollution consistent with keeping further warming below 2° F, including ambitious domestic reduction targets for 2020 and 2050, other policies to make additional reductions at home and abroad, and a prompt science-based review to accelerate reductions if necessary.

Work with other nations to reach a new climate treaty that keeps further warming below 2° F at the Copenhagen climate summit at the end of 2009.  US leadership in moving legislation to cap emissions is an important first step, but the US will also need to work with other countries to establish an equitable U.N. climate treaty.  A main focus will need to be working with key developing countries — such as China, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, South Korea, and South Africa — on emissions reductions.  But they’ll also need to work with other developed countries (e.g., the EU, Canada, Japan, and Russia) on emissions reduction targets and with the most vulnerable developing countries on adaptation.  These bilateral efforts could be integrated into the “G20” dialogue which recently focused on the global financial crisis and should feed into the international negotiations.  The U.S. will need to interject its proposals into the debate and outline its positions on key elements very quickly as the negotiations are ongoing.

Lead a worldwide effort to finance clean energy deployment, forest conservation, and adaptation to unavoidable climate impacts.  It will be crucial to ensure that these “three pillars” are delivered by the US as they will be a building block to encouraging developing country action, reducing the loss of tropical forests, and addressing the impacts of climate change on the most vulnerable.  As a “down payment”, the President and Congress should appropriate funding for near-term efforts to support developing countries in these efforts by contributing to the adaptation funds within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and other mechanisms (e.g., for least developed countries).  More sustainable funding for these actions should be delivered by ensuring that financing is established in US climate legislation (e.g., by setting aside a portion of the revenues from the emissions auction system).

What actions will need to occur in the State Department?

Appoint a climate negotiating team.  The President will need to immediately designate a chief climate envoy in time to attend the next Conference of the Parties in Poland, December 2008, as an observer.  While he didn’t signal that he would send an envoy, he did ask Members of Congress attending the negotiations to report back.  And, the Secretary of State should play a stronger role in these negotiations as America’s top diplomat.  His full negotiation team will need to be in place very early after his inauguration as the first negotiation session of 2009 will occur at the end of March.  

The President should pledge to make climate change a priority for the next Administration.  Well this kind of seems dated as he just announced in California that addressing global warming will be a priority.  (I promise we finalized this plan weeks ago.)  But more deeds will need to follow these words early in his Administration and he’ll need to sustain this commitment as other issues will compete for his priorities.

Issue an executive order on climate change in US diplomacy.  This order will need to outline how the U.S. Government will coordinate in developing the positions, policies, regulations and incentives to position the U.S. so that it will be prepared to sign a treaty in Copenhagen.  It should also include a directive to the Department of State to formally consider the impacts of climate change as it negotiates and implements treaties and to USAID to consider climate change in its foreign assistance programs, priorities, and funding.

Support efforts to curb global deforestation.  The President should use a broad range of policy incentives and bilateral assistance to support efforts to reduce deforestation and forest degradation emissions.  He could also make a “down payment” towards these efforts by contributing to ongoing “pilot efforts” to address deforestation emissions as agreed in the Bali Roadmap.  As part of bilateral and multilateral efforts to reduce deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, the Secretary of State should support programs that address the underlying causes of deforestation, poor forest governance (e.g., addressing illegal logging), migration to ecologically sensitive areas, poverty, and unsustainable resource consumption.

Undertake a legislative initiative to comprehensively address the elements of an international treaty.  In addition to cap-and-trade legislation, Congress needs to consider establishing the framework now to implement a treaty that is signed and ready for ratification.  

What actions will need to occur in the US Agency for International Development (USAID)?

Reform and revitalize foreign assistance in order to address the most pressing needs of the world’s poor, and to promote economic growth in a sustainable manner, including by integrating greenhouse gas emissions reductions with other foreign assistance strategic objectives.  This should include utilizing development assistance to establish effective partnerships with key developing countries to deliver the key global warming agreements on the ground in these countries.  Effectively using the recently agreed US-China Ten Year Framework on Energy and Environment could be a useful tool to engage in bilateral action on the ground in China and should probably be one of the first partnerships reinvigorated (as discussed under the “to do list” for Treasury).

Lead globally on climate change adaptation and resilience.  The Administrator should incorporate adaptation and resilience strategies into all its projects and work to provide substantial support for vulnerable communities in developing countries and the natural systems on which they depend to prepare for and adapt to the effects of climate change.

What about the Treasury Department?

Green the Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs).  Considerable recommendations have been developed on how the MDBs (e.g., World Bank) can support truly sustainable development.  Those recommendations now need to be implemented, including a special emphasis on shifting MDB portfolios away from fossil fuels and towards support of renewable energy/low carbon development.

Undertake a new engagement with China.  The President should seek a new “opening” with China.  A first step could involve initiating a new Sustainable Trade Dialogue to promote bilateral and public-private sector cooperation on energy conservation and green supply chain issues such as responsible sourcing of raw materials and low-carbon forms of production.

President-elect Obama and Members of Congress now have a “roadmap” for restoring American global leadership on global warming.  There isn’t a single action that can deliver this leadership — it will have to be sustained — but NRDC and others in this coalition will be working tirelessly to implement these key steps (and others).  We’ll be starting the minute the new Administration takes office and Congress reconvenes in 2009.  And, we’ll be working to ensure that they are active in helping us deliver a worldwide agreement to address global warming, since we’ll need significant global emissions reduction progress in the next 10 years if we are to put the world on a path to address global warming.  I hope that you will help us!


Cross-posted from the Natural Resources Defense Council Switchboard.

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