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US Assertive on Climate Change - those who ignore the science are “on their own shrinking island”

Stepping out in front of the spectacular, yet shrinking Exit Glacier in Arctic Alaska last week, US President Barack Obama continued his call for strong action on climate change. In what was his most assertive and visually compelling push to highlight the issue, Obama stated that “there is such a thing as being too late”, noting that the Exit Glacier had retreated a troubling 57 metres in the past year.

Obama’s visit to the region, the first by a sitting US president, was in order to attend the State Department’s GLACIER Global Leadership in the Arctic Conference. Addressing leaders of fellow Arctic nations, Obama said that the US would continue to drive leadership on combating the “urgent, growing and defining threat of this century”, warning that “any so-called world leader” who doesn’t take climate change seriously “is not fit to lead.”

Obama painted an apocalyptic picture of the future if nations refused to act – one of children condemned to live with “submerged countries, abandoned cities, desperate refugees and global conflict.” However, in concluding his address he remained encouraged by the fact that 2014 was the first year the global economy strengthened while carbon emissions remained flat, suggesting that efforts to combat climate change were not necessarily tied to economic downturn.

The President’s Alaskan stop-off concluded a two-week climate change tour that included visits to New Orleans’ Ninth Ward on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas – visits that were punctuated by equally decisive rhetoric.

In New Orleans, Obama warned that worsening climate conditions would encourage more extreme natural disasters akin to Katrina. While in Las Vegas, he suggested that climate change represented a greater threat than the current pronounced threats of the Islamic State and tensions with Russia; threats that are, however grim, temporally bound and reversible in comparison.

A year of climate change make or break

The President’s tour builds on the momentum of preceding environmental initiatives undertaken as part of the Presidential Climate Action Plan. As part of the Plan, Obama has managed to circumvent the Republican majority Congress by utilising executive action to virtually double the US commitment to cut emissions, unveiled the domestic-focused Clean Power Plan through the Environmental Protection Agency and sealed a bilateral historic carbon emissions agreement with China late last year, in which Beijing promised to cap its emissions in 2030.

The hope is that the substantial efforts of the world’s biggest economy and second largest carbon emitter will persuade other nations to think harder about their own climate strategies and commitments in the lead up to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, to be held in Paris this November.

The Paris conference represents a critical point in moving national emission schemes forward and cementing a global deal that will ensure enough is done to keep the globe from warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius. Nations were asked to submit their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions ahead of the conference, and while many state efforts are promising, suggests that the 57 pledges submitted so far fall short of the required goal. This fact, combined with the reality that previous conferences (Copenhagen in 2009 and Kyoto in 1997) have not done enough, have many apprehensive about likely success in Paris.

Connie Hedegaard, former EU Climate Commissioner and President of the 2009 Copenhagen conference, said in a visit to Sydney University’s Democracy Network last month that the “US playing hardball” certainly makes a global deal in Paris look attainable, particularly given that Obama’s framing of the issue as a matter of global security resonates with the public.

However, Hedegaard assures us that the discussions will be complex. In particular, developing nations (those who will suffer most from climate change) will likely question whether the US and other wealthy nations (the worlds biggest emitters to date) will deliver on promises of financial assistance to help developing nations reduce emissions and invest in clean technology. In particular, a question mark surrounds whether US support would continue under a Republican President after Obama’s tenure in 2017. Continued federal leadership will be vital for continued progress.

Obama’s aggressive rhetoric mirrors a need for aggressive action in Paris. However, while the international process of reaching a global agreement has been optimistically propelled forward by the Obama’s hard line, there is still no guarantee.

Sophie Wilson is the United States Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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Image credit: Malte Pott/Shutterstock

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