Climate change: Heating up

A FORTY-FIVE pound turkey called Courage was among the lucky few of his flock this weekend to have survived America's Thanksgiving celebrations. Under the portico of the White House, President Barack Obama bestowed upon "Courage" the annual presidential pardon. "I was planning to eat this sucker," Obama is reported to have declared, before giving in to his daughter's demands that he let it live.

It concluded a less than arduous few days for the President who, earlier in the week, had enjoyed throwing a lavish reception in the White House grounds for Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh. The next few weeks may not be so easy. Obama and courage – and the question of whether he has enough of it – will be raised again. And if he is found wanting, he may find that the watching world is not so willing to pardon him.

Just before seeing Courage on Thursday, Obama had drawn sighs of relief on the other side of the Atlantic by disclosing that he would indeed be attending the UN summit on climate change next month, which meets in nine days in the Danish capital of Copenhagen. At the same time, he announced a reversal of a decade and more of official US policy, pledging to peg the US to a specific target on reducing its emissions of CO2, the principle greenhouse gas.

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Both were initially seen as signs of hope the summit may achieve something that its predecessor in Kyoto, 12 years ago, failed to do. But Obama's pledges still fell well short of similar proposals put forward by many European nations. It quickly became clear his attendance at the summit was less a commitment to forcing change on global warming than a happy coincidence of planning. He will turn up briefly for the initial stages of the talks, before heading to Sweden to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize.

The award of that prize to a president who had barely begun his term in office was seen as the nadir of the Western world's infatuation with the glamorous new president. A scenario is now beginning to emerge where at the very moment the president is picking up his gong, his government's own actions could be trashing that pristine reputation. It is American intransigence which most climate-change campaigners fear will be the main stumbling block to any genuinely historic deal emerging in Copenhagen. So will the American president put US realpolitik ahead of the climate challenge? Or can he persuade his reluctant nation to sign up to a binding deal on climate change?

As in the 1997 Kyoto accord, which expires in 2012, the Copenhagen talks aim to negotiate 2020 emissions reduction targets for industrial countries. The big change from Kyoto, however, is that this time round, developing countries are being asked to present their own plans for how they will cut emissions as well.

It has not been going well. Talks have been hobbled by a rift between developed and developing nations over who should cut emissions, by how much, and who should pay for it. Facing the talks' collapse, the Danish government, in its role as host, has thus proposed the world delay a legally binding agreement until 2010 and instead aims to reach a comprehensive political deal.

Accusations of a huge talking shop have been levelled. But the organisers' optimism was somewhat restored last week, not just by the US pledge, but also by the cast-iron commitment outlined by the world's leading polluter, China. Prime minister Wen Jiabao announced that future growth would be 45 per cent less "carbon intensive". Concrete commitment by the US and China will be crucial to any deal next month and now there are hopes it is possible. "As we head towards Copenhagen, the world's two largest emitters have stepped up to the plate at the highest political level," said Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute. Low expectations, previously lowered, have now risen once again.

Climate-change sceptics may continue to disagree, but the prevailing view is that Copenhagen matters a great deal. In Ethiopia, for example, twenty-five years after Bob Geldof brought together the cream of British pop to raise money for the drought-hit population, the government estimates that 6.2 million people require emergency help, with the latest crisis a direct consequence of climate change.

The late onset and early end of the main rains has ruined the country's crop-producing areas. Tewolde Egziahber, director of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority, says the country is prepared to move on from the "plunder" of the country's resources by the rich world in the past. "But this same old plunder has now been reincarnated to have a new global face– climate change," he says. Earlier this year, the Scottish Government announced a world-leading plan to cut its own carbon emissions 42 per cent by 2020. "We hope that the rest of the north emulates Scotland," adds Egziahber. "We, in the south, will then follow, even if limping behind".

The Global Humanitarian Forum, headed by former Secretary-General of the UN Kofi Annan, recently estimated that 300,000 people are dying each year from climate-related causes. Paul Chitnis, chief executive of the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF) says he saw the impact of climate change on the poor world on a recent trip to El Salvador, where 400 people were killed by landslides and floods following a huge storm. "Industrialised nations' inaction on climate change is costing the lives of people in developing countries. World leaders must take urgent action in Copenhagen to ensure the suffering of the poorest is addressed," he declares. So what can Copenhagen actually achieve?

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The UK team will be led by Environment Secretary Ed Miliband. He goes with a pledge to cut emissions in Britain by 30 per cent by 2020 – less than Scotland, but more than the vast majority of other nations. He hopes to use the UK's pledge to lever up more recalcitrant nations. He takes heart from the Chinese and US declarations last week. "It is very encouraging to have the US and China come out with concrete actions that they are going to put on the table," he told Scotland on Sunday. "It marks a moment when we can see that an agreement is possible. The important thing for us is to push both the US and China for maximum contributions. The question is not deal or no deal, but what kind of deal is it."

Miliband's optimism is grounded in the clear evidence that neither the US nor China appear to want to be cast as the scapegoat for the summit's failure. China is now going further than many expected, insisting last week that Copenhagen's agreement had a legal basis. But Obama's problem is that while he can offer warm words, there are doubts he lacks the clout in Washington to deliver.

Obama's plan stands on a climate change bill which, he hopes, will commit to a reduction in American carbon emissions of 17 per cent relative to 2005 levels, by 2020. Compared to the 1990 level by which most cuts are being judged, however, this amounts to a 4 per cent cut, more than seven times smaller than Britain's. But even this comparatively tiny cut may be blocked by the US Senate where the view lingers that, whatever international summitry may achieve, it is Washington that passes the laws that matter.

This lack of support reflects a wider lack of interest in America in climate change. John Fortier, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, notes: "In polls, Europeans often respond that climate change is the third, or fourth-most-pressing problem. A recent Gallup survey found only 1 per cent of Americans view the environment as their top concern."

Fortier notes that the European Union has suggested that the developed nations offer $150bn (91bn) a year to developing nations to help them adapt to climate change, by investing in clean technology. "Even a small fraction of that level of aid is a nonstarter on the American political scene," he says.

Even Democrats, he warns, will be wary of using up too much political capital on such a woolly plan, particularly after the gruelling battle they are fighting over healthcare reform. Adding to the problems, Obama has a shrinking window to get legislation passed before the mid-term elections next year. "There is a desperation for getting something done before then," says a spokesman for Greenpeace. Environmentalists fear the entire package will be watered down to insignificance in an effort to do so.

All the while, there is now a clear upsurge in the number of people who believe that the climate change is a huge con. Ed Gillespie, co-founder of Futerra, a environmental communications agency, says prior to Copenhagen, the climate-change denial movement has grown. He says: "There has been a resurgence in the run up to Copenhagen with more people questioning the science."

He notes how environmental campaigners are now being slandered as Nazis or Stalinists, as the PR war turns nasty. "If you can introduce an element of doubt into the science, then it is battle won," he notes.

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Miliband insists the science is still clear. "In the last 15 years we have had nine of the ten warmest years. The idea that it is not getting warmer is untrue. When you see the evidence from the Met Office or from the Royal Societies, they are not in my pay. I'm not engaged in a conspiracy with them and it is far fetched to imagine that," he says.

However, thousands remain to be convinced. For US Senators, already reluctant to harm the economy by agreeing to cuts in carbon emissions, those doubts may provide the tipping point.

If Obama can win them over, there is still the prospect of a deal in Copenhagen, even if a legally-binding document may have to wait until a further summit next year, planned for Mexico.

Combined with China's plans, the actions of the two largest polluters could, according to the International Energy Agency, prevent the globe from warming by the crucial two degrees Celsius, the point at which the worst impacts of climate change begin.

For the US president, the stakes are high. The world's most popular politician aspires to provide global leadership on climate change. But with his political capital already thinly spread, and a sceptical country behind him, he is in danger of disappointing his supporters across the globe. For it, and Obama, the heat is on.