A letter to Obama

Feature Story - 2009-10-30
Greenpeace China's Yang Ailun calls on the President of the United States to show leadership for the sake of the whole world.

It's time Barack Obama showed leadership on climate change for the sake of the whole world.

A phone call between Chinese President Hu Jintao and you, President Barack Obama, on October 20 made headlines around the world.

This is understandable as you are, arguably, the two most powerful leaders in the world.

Reportedly, a key part of the call were discussions on efforts to assure the success of UN climate talks coming up in December in Copenhagen.

With a little over a month to go to the critical Copenhagen meeting, every phone call and every conversation between world leaders is important if the meeting is to result in a strong, effective agreement.

China is currently looking more like a climate champion than the United States, showing stronger political will to take climate leadership and made hard decisions, demonstrated by President Hu Jintao's speech at the United Nations Climate Summit last month in New York.

Time is running out for you, President Obama, to show your climate credentials. And, currently, the evidence is against you and your administration that you, decision makers of the world's richest and most powerful country, are even interested in being true climate leaders.

In every climate negotiations meeting this year from Bonn to Bangkok, there has been no positive movement on the part of the US team.

A second example is just as worrying.

Recent analysis also shows that the key and only climate legislation in front of US Congress, known as the Waxman-Markey Bill, means business-as-usual and a disappointment for the world to jointly avert a climate catastrophe.

US Congress is attempting to adopt a misleading 2005 benchmark to make the proposed US carbon cap look significant yet, if measured from the agreed baseline of 1990, would result in a weak target of only a 4% reduction in greenhouse pollution.

At a time when the science demands at least a 25% emissions reduction target based on the 1990 baseline, this not only shows the lack of willingness by the US to join with global efforts, it also reduces your ability to negotiate a global deal with countries such as China and India.

Coal is also the big winner of the proposed US legislation, being handed tens of billions of dollars to 'hide' its pollution. Yet renewable and clean technology - existing, proven technology - receives little federal support.

US Congress has also created another enormous loophole - two billion tonnes of offsets - that will effectively postpone the need to reduce US industrial emissions for close to two more decades.

China is often perceived as the big irresponsible polluter, but even a simple review reveals that it has set a national goal for renewable energy of 15% by 2020.

The US, on the other hand, has not set renewable energy targets at the federal level.

Chinese fuel economy standards are significantly stricter than those of the US. And Chinese cars have already reached the level of efficiency the US aims to achieve by 2016 under your newly established fuel economy standards.

However, it is not all plain sailing for China. Its energy supply, for example, is still much more carbon intensive than that of the US. But it has begun to reduce its carbon intensity, and President Hu pledged at the UN in September to reduce carbon intensity by a "notable margin" by 2020.

Since you came into power, the world has been waiting for a signal that the US is getting serious about climate action.

You seemed to get serious when you talked about climate soon after you took presidency:

"Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response," you said.

When the chief negotiator for the US Government, Jonathan Pershing said, "The US is prepared to do its part", the world naturally waited for evidence to follow the claim.

One year later, the world is still waiting.

Currently, President Obama, you are the key obstacle in the global fight against climate change. President Obama, you need to walk the talk and make the US a real champion.

It's time for the rhetoric to stop and for serious action to begin.

What is needed is a personal and strong message directly from you, President Obama, that the US is prepared to commit to real emissions reductions.

That will enable the US to go to the climate negotiations with leadership level commitments.

What is needed is money on the table for the developing world as part of the global solution.

And, finally, what is also needed is for the US to stop trying to bypass the Kyoto climate agreement.

There is an urgent need for presidential attention. Without this, the ability of the US to resume its place as a respected leader in the world is limited.

The world is waiting for the phone call from you, President Obama, that will clearly show that the US is genuinely ready to engage with the global community, that you are ready to be the climate leader that you must be.

Yang Ailun is Greenpeace China's Climate and Energy campaign manager