President Obama had promised action on climate change when he came to power for the first time in 2008, but till now, promises have remained as promises. At the end of three presidential debates, it’s surprising to note that none of the presidential candidates mentioned “climate change” or “global warming” in their discussions. It is clear that climate change agenda has been side-tracked. Did President Obama fail in transforming the climate change agenda into a political agenda?
Donald A. Brown argues that by not being able to mobilize public support to build a political mandate on climate change, President Obama has failed not only politically but also on ethical grounds.
US President Obama has been silent on climate change for two years even when discussing related issues such as the severe drought affecting large parts of the United States. With the exception of a Rolling Stone article (Ready for a Fight: The Rolling Stone Interview of Obama) in which President Obama was quoted as saying that he expected climate change to become an issue in the upcoming presidential election, nothing has been heard from the US President on climate change since the US Congress failed to pass a climate bill in 2010.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Obama administration has been somewhat quietly issuing regulations (What is EPA Doing About Climate Change?) under the Clean Air Act that will create very modest US reductions of greenhouse gas emissions from some new stationary and mobile sources, yet these regulations will not come close to reducing US greenhouse gas emissions to levels that represent the US fair share of safe global emissions.
Although US EPA has recently announced a new fleet fuel efficiency rule for US automakers that will double fleet efficiency by 2025, these rules will not produce overall US greenhouse emissions reductions congruent with levels the consensus scientific view has concluded are necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.
Although the majority of US citizens now believe climate change is human-caused, according to recent polls, very few Americans seem to understand the civilization challenging scope of the problem, a fact that can be attributed to a failure of US political leadership.
Several commentators have strongly criticized President Obama for failing to make climate change a political issue for the last two years. For instance, Joe Romm of Climate Progress has frequently written critically about President Obama’s silence including a recent article entitled “The Sounds of Silence on Science: The Country Is on Fire, But Obama Isn’t“.
Those criticizing US President Obama for failing to make climate change a high profile political issue in the last several years often point to the practical need to build a political mandate in the US to enact federal climate change legislation coupled with the urgency of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Unless climate change is kept alive as a political issue, so the argument goes, no US congressional action is likely. And so the US White House silence on climate change has been criticized as a practical political failure to make progress on an issue about which the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous harms.
In addition to being a practical political failure, can the White House silence on climate change also be understood to be a serious ethical and moral failure, even if legislative action is not likely because of the current political opposition by those who control Congress? If the US President’s silence is an ethical issue, then the President should talk about climate change not solely as a consideration in developing political strategy, but because he has a duty to do so.
A strong argument can be made that the failure of the Head of State in a high-emitting country to encourage his or her country’s citizens to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is not just a practical political mistake, but a serious ethical failure. This is so because, among other reasons, all nations have duties that they have expressly acknowledged in several international agreements including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to prevent activities within their jurisdiction from causing harm of to others beyond their borders. In the UNFCCC, nations have agreed to:
- Recalling also that States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (UN 1992a: Preface, emphasis added).
- The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof (UN 1992a: Art. 3, emphasis added).
- The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent, or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost (UN 1992a: Art 3, emphasis added).