U.S. climate change time

The floor of a working group meeting at COP15

I understand the concept of “Africa time,” having lived in Rwanda and now Senegal.  I came to embrace “res time” when working on an American Indian reservation in law school.  But Todd Sterns’ declaration yesterday – his first public comments about the Copenhagen negotiations since their conclusion on December 19 – that President Obama and Secretary Clinton made a heroic, last-minute “save” of the tanking talks, doesn’t really acknowledge “U.S. climate change time.”  Talking about the three-page accord that resulted from COP15 but was not formally accepted by the 192 country delegations, Stern said that it “is lumbering down the runway, and now it needs to get speed so it can take off.”

Civil society creatively making its voice heard at COP15.

While not quite geologic time, the glacial pace at which the U.S. has moved toward accepting human-induced climate change as a scientific fact and taking action to do its part to address it, has been a profound impediment to international cooperation.  In other words, since signing on to the UNFCC in 1992, U.S. “wait, wait, hurry up, wait, hurry up” behavior, has taken its toll on international cooperation and contributed to Copenhagen’s anemic results.  To characterize the U.S. president and secretary of state as Superman and Wonder Woman turns a blind eye to our country’s inaction of the past 12 years, as well as the real work that European countries have done to meet emissions reduction goals and put real adaptation fund money and aggressive mitigation goals on the negotiating table.  The Obama administration can only shift attention to a recalcitrant (or at best distracted) Senate for so long.

A delegation member at COP15.

I hope that President Obama will lead the U.S. to make concrete commitments by January 31, to set the standard for transforming the process-oriented Copenhagen climate accord into real action.  How much will the U.S. contribute each year to the promised $30 billion in adaptation funds?  How much deeper will the U.S.cut its GHG emissions beyond the proposed 17% of 2005 level (exhibit A of U.S. climate change time, basing it on 2005 levels, rather than the 1990 levels used by industrialized countries serious about climate change).  Answering these questions will help international climate change law take off and show that the U.S. wants to be on board.


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