Many are pinning their hopes on the new US administration at the international climate change negotiations that have been taking place in Bonn this week. However, a look back at the Clinton years suggests history may well repeat itself.
The inauguration of President Clinton as the 42nd President of the United States on January 20, 1993, was met with great fanfare in the international environment community and rightly so. During the election, the Clinton campaign had denounced the former Bush Administration for its “abdication of leadership” on climate change. It was hoped that the re-assessment of the situation by the new US President would lead to a major shift in the US position.
Fast forward to January 20, 2009, and the situation was almost identical. In November, in his first major speech on climate change since winning the election, then President-elect Barack Obama stated that “few challenges facing America - and the world - are more urgent than combating climate change”, and he went on “many of you are working to confront this challenge ... but too often, Washington has failed to show the same kind of leadership. That will change when I take office.”
The first weeks of President Obama’s Administration suggested he was right. In February, he directed US federal regulators to move swiftly on an application by California and 13 other states to set strict limits on greenhouse gases from cars and trucks. Progressive Democrats in Congress, supported by the administration, are also pushing for a cap-and-trade scheme for this year. Once again, many are hoping that a major shift in the US position on climate change is on the cards.
And, why not? After the calamity that was George W Bush’s Administration, the stage is now set for the new president to lead the world on climate change. What’s more, the state of the climate change debate has moved considerably since the days of President Clinton.
In the early 1990s, the climate negotiations were characterised by scientific and economic uncertainties. In many nations, governments and popular opinion were sceptical of anthropogenic climate change. Most business groups were divided on the issue and developing countries did not want to participate in negotiations over an issue that they viewed as a problem for rich, developed countries.
Today the picture has changed. The science has shifted enormously. In 2007, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that there is a 90 per cent chance of climate change occurring and that humans are the main cause.
Growing scientific certainty has been followed by growing economic certainty. Several widely respected economic inquiries including, the British Government’s Stern Review and the Australian Garnaut Review, have found that the costs of doing nothing are much higher than the costs of acting now. Business groups are no longer divided as they were and developing countries are pushing for action.
However, take a closer look, and the controversies that plagued the climate negotiations in the early 1990s remain.
It seems likely that the US will still demand that developing countries, like China and India take “meaningful action” before the US commits to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. So far, developing countries are refusing.
Like in the Clinton years, developing countries insist that they receive financial transfers and access to technologies before they undertake national measures.
The response of the US and Europe has long been that transfers of the scale required must be tied to specific conditions on how the money and technology are used. Fair enough, industrialised countries have already witnessed much overseas development aid end up as fleets of Mercedes for the ruling party in some countries.
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