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Actions worthy of a Nobel laureate

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Monday, 16 November 2009

It is being reported in the London Times and elsewhere that Barack Obama will not attend the Copenhagen climate change summit in December. This is most disappointing because as Bill Clinton has argued “the struggle to contain climate change” is “the greatest challenge of our era”. Of all of the pressing international issues on Obama’s plate, global warming, unless halted, is likely to have the biggest negative impact on the quality of life on our planet. George W. Bush’s failure to address this issue, and in fact his aiding and abetting of industries which most likely worsened the problem, was the greatest failing of his presidency. While most would agree the Iraq war was a grievous error, its consequences are likely to have much less impact than the failure to address climate change.

Despite the complexities of how to measure ocean temperatures, polar ice melts, and the impact deforestation and fossil fuel emissions have on the climate, there is consensus that human activity is increasing the temperature of our planet and that this will create significant problems in the future. This conclusion has been reached by the vast majority of scientific experts upon whose advice non-experts must ultimately rely on.

Sure there are experts who are sceptical about climate change and there are also climate change believers who think the reality will be much worse than the consensus position. However, to present this debate as two-sided is nonsense. The use of sceptics’ claims by politicians in the US and Australia has been one of the more shameful legacies of the politics of the last ten years; an intellectual deception that should have received just as much attention as the sexing up of intelligence reports or the exaggerations about the threats posed by Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.


Since being elected president, Barack Obama has shown concern for both short term and longer term problems. This ability to consider intergenerational issues along with a concern for issues not just solely related to American homeland security no doubt appealed to the Nobel committee. Specifically, he has said encouraging words on setting our “sights on the eradication of extreme poverty in our time” and the desirability of moving towards a nuclear weapons free world. These proactive words on such issues make his lack of words and actions to date on global warming even more disappointing.

What can Obama do? First, he should talk more about the issue domestically and attempt to take a leadership role internationally. In Obama’s major speeches domestically he has said very little about global warming - it received half a sentence of attention in his Inaugural address and another partial sentence in his address to the Congress in February 2009 where he mentioned the need to “save our planet from the ravages of climate change” (a bold statement followed up with little since). His decision to apparently not attend the Copenhagen conference is reflective of the low priority of this crucial issue.

Addressing climate change is not going to be easy but neither was overcoming formalised and informal racism in America. Early steps in anti-racism campaigns often came with very difficult consequences - politicians lost support and sometimes their jobs. A lot of anger was aroused which certain politicians manipulated to gain support. However, opposing racist policies was the right thing to do, and over time hardened interests and bogus scientific theories about racial difference were eventually overcome and anti-racism has become the accepted norm in America and Australia.

Such moral leadership is now needed on climate change. Also necessary are innovative domestic policies and more goodwill at the international level. Obama cannot by himself overcome the many obstacles; however, it would be encouraging to see him try a little harder to overcome some of them. After all the US president is the person who can make the single biggest difference on global warming.

Obama is regularly criticised for relying too much on his oratory skills but as one of the most respected presidential scholars Richard Neustadt proclaimed: “the power of the presidency is the power to persuade”. It is worth remembering that Presidents can neither pass legislation nor ratify international treaties but Obama’s celebrated oratory skills could do much to move the issue of global warming forward.

During the Bush/Cheney era, foreign policy was oriented to address the so-called “one percent doctrine” (the chance that a terrorist organisation would get hold of a nuclear weapon and use it against America). The 90 per cent chance of global warming was at the same time ignored.


Will Obama make the same mistake of being obsessed by supposed security threats, while neglecting action on global warming? Of course he should be concerned about Iran developing a nuclear arsenal, but it is worth recalling the words of the Director of the CIA in 1964 when the quintessential rogue state of the time, China, developed its first nuclear weapons. He claimed that nuclear war was now “almost inevitable”. If Obama uses history as his guide, he should be less consumed than his predecessor with the threat of WMD to American security and more concerned about the historical trends showing a clear and steady rise in global temperatures since the early 1980s.

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First published in the Canberra Times on November 4, 2009.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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