Obama's Frank Talk on Climate at the U.N.: More Please

by Amy Sinden

September 22, 2009

Imagine if the end of the world were coming and everyone was just too polite to talk about it. That’s been the eerie feeling I've gotten over the past eight months listening to the President talk about energy policy. Not wanting to be a downer, he couches his energy talk in positive spin: We’re going to invest in the new clean green economy, create jobs, sell American ingenuity and know-how around the world, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Missing is any mention of the reason we’re going to all the trouble of undertaking a vast and expensive transformation of our well-entrenched carbon economy in the first place: all those coal plants and gas guzzling cars threaten to end life as we know it on this planet (not my words – NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen’s). Just a minor detail – but one worth mentioning, perhaps?

It was refreshing, then, to hear President Obama acknowledge the real issue – that pesky little end-of-the-world problem – at a speech before the United Nations today. He talked about the stuff that’s been keeping climate scientists up at night for decades now: rising seas, storms and floods, drought and crop failure, families fleeing and becoming climate refugees, and the implications of all this for political stability and security around the world.

But then, he knew his audience. He was talking to a bunch of U.N. policy wonks to whom none of this was particularly surprising or controversial.

But he needs to do more. President Obama needs to use his gift for high-minded oratory and his bully pulpit to take the message to the American public. He needs to talk straight to us about the problem, about the enormous weight of responsibility we bear for causing it, and about what we need to do, individually and as a nation, to solve it. Here are some talking points for the President:

  1. The problem is urgent. The scariest part is the steady stream of scientific findings in recent years that seem to indicate that things are progressing even faster than scientists initially anticipated. We read news reports of scientists shocked at the rate of ice melt in the Arctic and uncovering yet more feedback loops that may accelerate the pace of change. Now, on top of all that, it looks like greenhouse gas emissions have risen even faster in the last couple of years than the IPCC’s worst case scenario, suggesting that even the dire forecasts in their 2007 report may be underestimating the problem.
  2. It’s our fault. And it’s not just a little bit our fault, like President Obama seemed to intimate when he said today “the developed nations that caused much of the damage to our climate over the last century.” Our emissions are astronomical in comparison to those of the developing world. Per capita CO2 emissions in the United States are close to 20 metric tons per year, compared to just over four and a half tons in China just over one ton in India, and a small fraction of a ton in many African countries. And we can’t just lump ourselves in with the rest of the developed world, either. With the exception of Canada and Australia, the other developed countries are doing far better than we are. The U.K. has per capita emissions of less than 10 tons a year. In Sweden, where they have to heat their buildings most of the year, per capita annual emissions are just 5 1/2 tons. But then, of course, our government refused to even acknowledge the problem until just a few years ago. Meanwhile Sweden has had an aggressive carbon tax in place for nearly two decades. In short, we owe the rest of the world a great big mea culpa.
  3. It should be no surprise, then, when countries like China and India get their back up a bit when we start in with the playground logic: “We’ll jump if you jump.” Most people in China don’t own a car, and a lot of them don’t even own a refrigerator. How can we possibly demand that they impose binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions, when we, the richest country in the world, have yet to take that step ourselves? Anyone with half an ounce of sensitivity can see that it’s downright rude for us—the ones who caused this mess to begin with—to even think about making demands of the developing world before we have passed a law that imposes binding limits on our own emissions—a step that’s now two decades overdue.
  4. From an ethical standpoint, climate change is not a particularly difficult or ambiguous issue. It’s a simple problem with a simple solution. A commonly held resource – the global atmosphere – was once thought to be of unlimited capacity. But scientists discovered that its capacity to hold carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is limited. As a result, in order to ensure that we don’t waste this limited resource, we need to divide it up and allocate it among all the people on the planet. Virtually any ethical or religious system would agree there’s only one fair way to divide a commonly held resource – in equal shares. Average global emissions are currently around 4 tons per person. That means, we in the United States are using way more than our fair share. In essence, we’re taking what doesn’t belong to us. In a country that professes respect for private property rights, that should be cause for concern. What usually happens when you use someone else’s property? You owe them rent. And what about when you use someone else’s property and break it? You owe them rent and damages. We’ve been using someone else’s property and neglecting to pay for it for decades. And with every passing year that we continue to use 20 or 15 or 10 tons of carbon per year while people in India and Africa use 1, we owe vast rental payments to the people of the developing world. And as the planet continues to show signs of breaking—as seas rise, as droughts dry up crops, as water supplies shrink and diseases spread—we owe them damages too. It’s a matter of core American values: Taking personal responsibility; paying your bills.

The President needs to convey the unvarnished truth to the American public. He needs to communicate the urgency of the problem and our clear moral responsibility to take immediate, dramatic steps to address it. Congress must pass a law imposing binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions before the start of international climate change talks in Copenhagen in December. And the public must support the President in offering generous payments to the developing world. They’ve asked the developed countries to commit 1% of GDP. That’s not a lot to ask. It’s undoubtedly far less than we owe.

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Also from Amy Sinden

Amy Sinden is the James E. Beasley Professor of Law at the Temple University Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia. She has been a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and at the Temple-Tsinghua Masters of Law program in Beijing,China. She is a member of the board of directors of the Center for Progressive Reform.

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