Will Obama lead the world to greener pastures?

Posted by Laura Grant on November 3, 2008
Posted in Green News

Tomorrow Americans will vote for someone to replace George Bush as their president and whoever wins will be an improvement on the incumbent – there can’t be much doubt about that.

For the past eight years, the Texas oilman’s administration has been an obstacle in the way of a global climate change deal. Despite scientific consensus that human activity is causing the global average temperature to rise, Mr Bush has folded his arms and told the world: “I’m not going to tidy up my mess until China does”.

The leader of the last superpower – whose country has only recently been knocked off the top spot as world greenhouse gas emitter number one by China, according to some accounts, but whose per capita emissions are far higher than China’s – was only prepared to do things on his own terms in a case of “we look after our own interests first and to hell with the rest of you”.  Not the best example to set if you want to persuade developing countries, such as China, India and even South Africa, not to follow your own easier, cheaper, carbon-intensive path to economic development.

But things appear to be looking up. The belligerent Mr Bush will be replaced in the White House very shortly by someone who actually accepts the scientific evidence that climate change is caused by human activity.

Both Barack Obama, the Democrat, and John McCain, the Republican, have said they want a cap-and-trade system to cut US emissions. Obama’s ambitions are greater. He has said he wants US greenhouse gas emissions to be cut by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. McCain is looking at cuts of 60 percent. Obama has said he would auction off all the available emissions credits, McCain would be more generous to polluters, giving away many emissions credits at first and phasing in auctions.

Renewable energy will play a significant role in Obama’s climate change plans. He has said he will invest R150-billion dollars over the next 10 years in renewable energy sources – which will create 5-million green jobs. And has set a target that 25 percent of US electricity needs will be met by renewable sources by 2025.

McCain’s preference is for the building of new nuclear power stations and “clean coal”. The US apparently hasn’t built a new nuclear power station since 1978 – although nuclear apparently still accounts for 20 percent of US electricity output – but, according to reports, McCain wants 45 new nuclear power stations by 2030. He also proposes spending $2-billion a year on research into clean coal technologies.

Obama is said to have expressed reservations about nuclear safety and on how to deal with radioactive waste – but he’s not entirely opposed to nuclear power. Neither is he opposed to “clean coal” technologies, which may be a bit of a disappointment for environmentalists. But as an article in Grist points out, if he wants to win the election he’ll need more than the green vote – which he apparently has in the bag anyway, regardless of his position on coal.

What the new man in the White Houses decides to do about climate change will more than likely determine whether the target of keeping the global average temperature increase to below 2 degrees Celcius can be met or not.

For Africa, US climate change policy could influence whether tens of millions of people suffer water shortages as rainfall patterns change and drops in food yields put millions at risk of famine. Africa is responsible for a tiny fraction of the emissions that are causing the Earth’s climate the change, yet it will bear a disproportionate amount of the impacts, say scientists – and it is the continent least able to afford to deal with them.

But it’s not just Africa that will suffer, half the world still lives on less than $2 a day and does so only by subsisting on natural resources provided by the environment, the WWF says in a Greenprint it has drawn up for a new US administration.

Climate change, natural resource exhaustion and ecosystem collapse are “among the most profound and long-term threats to peace and security in the 21st century. The conflict imperiling the planet in the coming millennium is less likely to be between nations than between man and nature,” the WWF report says.

“And the United States is still the only nation capable of exerting the leadership needed to mobilise the globe into confronting these challenges.” But it needs to drop its old-fashioned Cold War approach to foreign policy and look more closely at issues such as climate change, global food and water security and natural resource conservation, says the WWF.

Experts say that there is no way to keep the global average temperature increase under 2 degrees Celcius unless the big emitters, like the US, start taking action immediately. The industrialised nations have an obligation to lead the way to a low carbon economy because they are responsible for the build-up of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere to date and they have the technological and economic capacity to move the world to a low-carbon economy.

John P Holdren, a professor of environmental policy at Harvard University and director of the Woods Hole Research Centre, wrote in Scientific American recently that it was now time for the US to start to lead the world. “That is the best remaining hope for averting global climate catastrophe.”

Holdren added that if the US finally stepped up to the plate, the rest of the world would follow. “In my judgment, if the US finally takes the lead, the EU will quickly adopt an economy-wide approach. So will Japan, and probably Russia,” he wrote. And, he added, that there’s a good chance that the Chinese, Indians, Brazilians and Indonesians will follow.

South Africa has already expressed a willingness to rein in its emissions, but it wants the industrialised countries to show their willingness to take responsibility for leading the change and financing the solutions.

For the world’s environment and many of the people who depend on it for their livelihoods a lot is at stake in this US election. I’m hoping, along with many other people in Africa, that Barack Obama will win and that, if he does, he won’t let us down.

Sources: Grist, AFP, SciAm, WWF, Barack Obama’s website, John McCain’s website

Photo of Barack Obama by Marc Nozell used under a Creative Commons license

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