President Obama and Copenhagen
Going is absolutely the right thing. Of course it’s a risk. Copenhagen is not going to be a moment of decision, the global turning point that many expected. President Obama and others have already announced there will not be binding agreements. But his being there may make the difference between there being commitments to clear emission targets, and a polite announcement that all of this is very important.
Its a risk because Congress isn’t ready — the Republican party has demonized the entire issue. The Europeans have continued to perfect their normal preference for grand gestures lacking any intent to do much specifically. And the major developing countries — China, India, and Brazil — have flatly rejected doing anything as part of a global effort, although all three assert that they will act domestically in their own interest to mitigate climate change (the newest Chinese commitment is welcome, but, as I understand it, is an artful rephrasing of a position they had already taken.) I have a great fondness for India but it reached a new level of rudeness in its treatment of Secretary Clinton when she posed the issue of climate change and Copenhagen during her recent trip to India.
This is what presidents are supposed to do. And, more to the point, it is a step toward the kind of presidency Obama said he wanted — a transformative one. No Congress and no nation is ever really ready for any change: in our system a president has to decide on a direction and begin to go. If they simply wait until every possible objection is overcome, then nothing ever is accomplished.
No one knows if Copenhagen with President Obama will begin a process toward effective action. But we do know there are long term consequences if we do not begin to act. Here is one scenario.
I attended a breakfast meeting of Resources for the Future (RFF), a major think-tank focusing on energy, climate, and the environment, that discussed RFF’s development of an “Adaptation Atlas.” Adaptation has been a controversial topic in the environmental/climate world because it assumes that a certain amount of climate change and damage is now inevitable; and we should begin to anticipate and deal with it. The RFF Atlas will follow the climate science and scenarios and the specific projects put in place globally to enable adaptation.
We may be adapting to a world without rainforests. Today, the areas of the world where the rain forests exist receive enormous amounts of rain, certainly enough to sustain the forests. But by 2080, this may not be the case: If all of the optimistic scenarios regarding the climate change measures the world pursues come to pass, the climate change that is already certain will mean that the rain forests will be much drier places, but probably sustainable to a degree. If we do nothing, or we do something but we do it late, the areas where the rain forests are now will be very very dry, and probably not sustainable. What happens to very dry forests? They burn down.
Obviously, this is not going to happen with the flip of a switch in 2080. The process begins now; the forests will get incrementally drier and drier; major rain forest fires will begin to be a fact of life of the late 21st century. Think of that picture of the “blue marble” — from the very early pictures taken of the earth from space — and how it transfixed all of us. Then think of that picture encircled by a girdle of fire and smoke. It will be spectacular. Go see the rain forests now. You can probably take your kids in the next couple of decades. Your grandkids may be out of luck. But then as I once heard someone say, “nobody saved me any buffalo.”
It is hard to escape the sense that the moment is slipping by. The U.S. political environment is getting harder, not easier. I don’t see any truly favorable trends anywhere else. There are a number of leaders of small countries, whose nations will probably be under water in a few decades, who feel passionately about this. But if anything is actually going to happen there has to be one leader, of one major country, willing to spend a lot of political capital — that means willing to deal with climate change at the expense of other priorities - who steps forward. The only person imaginable is President Obama and if not now, the next moment is probably early in his second term — 2013. To start a process. That is way too late.
Which brings me back to the rain forests.
Roosevelt Institute Braintruster Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team.