US: Stand Aside

protestors on the final day of talks at the ICC; image: Oxfam International

It’s the not-so-hidden secret of the UN climate negotiations: the United States has consistently blocked progress on reaching a deal to limit global greenhouse gas emissions and avoid catastrophic, irreversible climate change.  Surprisingly, the US stance here hasn’t changed much since the black hole days of the Bush administration.  In President Obama’s first inaugural address, he promised that his administration would “work tirelessly to… roll back the specter of a warming planet.” Yet since that euphoric moment, the administration’s vision for a new climate future has foundered.

On this last day of the climate negotiations (well, the day after the last day, but who’s counting), the US is playing the same old role.  While other countries have shifted in an effort to find points of compromise, the US is a broken record, harping on the need for other major emitters to commit, and for a new legal regime that begins in 2020, long after a more ambitious deal is needed.  As top-secret negotiations continue behind closed doors to hammer out a final text, it is unclear precisely what is going on.  But it is fairly easy to infer that it is the US, perhaps giving political cover to India and China, who is holding us back.

The good news is that the US is increasingly isolated here.  While parties spent the first week and a half of COP17 split in a number of coalitions around each issue, there was a sudden shift on Thursday night, when some 120 countries, including Brazil and South Africa-half of the powerful BASIC negotiating block-fell behind the EU’s roadmap for a new legal regime by 2015. As everyone from diplomat Connie Hedegaard to a particularly brave young American woman put pressure on the US to move, US stalwartness began to crack, and US negotiator Todd Stern made ambiguous remarks about the EU roadmap that the State Department was forced to clarify.

The US must yield to this global pressure and step aside, letting the rest of the world adopt a hard-won compromise to fight climate change.  There is a precedent for this: in 2007 in Bali, the Bush administration caved to pressure from the global community- saying “we will go forward and join consensus”- at the last moment and allowed the Bali Action Plan, a mandate for a new treaty regime, to go forward.

The Bali negotiations have another ironic resonance with today as well.  In Bali, Al Gore said “over the next two years, the United States is going to be somewhere it is not right now. We are going to change in the US.” But we haven’t changed.  But to save the planet from an unacceptable climate future, we need to change. What we need in Durban is another Bali moment.  The US must stand aside.