His­toric pact to curb emis­sions is ap­proved

Agree­ment is a big win for Obama, the ide­al­ist, the prag­ma­tist and the hope­ful

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY STEVEN MUFSON

On an un­sea­son­ably mild De­cem­ber day in Wash­ing­ton, Pres­i­dent Obama had rea­son to bask in the sun.

Across the At­lantic, in­ter­na­tional cli­mate ne­go­tia­tors com­pleted an agree­ment that owed much of its suc­cess to the will­ing­ness of the U.S. pres­i­dent to take on both con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans and fos­sil-fuel-in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tives on an is­sue that con­sis­tently ranks among the low­est pri­or­i­ties for Amer­i­can vot­ers.

Al­though the in­ter­na­tional agree­ment reached in Paris on Satur­day still leaves the world per­ilously vul­ner­a­ble to global warm­ing and ris­ing seas, Obama has sig­nif­i­cantly ad­vanced the global cli­mate agenda and has es­tab­lished a mech­a­nism that would en­able coun­tries to ex­ploit new tech­nol­ogy to cut green­house-gas emis­sions and, if pos­si­ble, tighten ex­ist­ing pledges to re­duce those emis­sions. As ne­go­tia­tors hud­dled in Paris over the past week, Obama was weigh­ing in by phone with the lead­ers of France, Brazil, China and In­dia.

“This agree­ment rep­re­sents the best chance we’ve had to save the one planet we’ve got,” Obama said Satur­day at the White House af­ter spend­ing the early af­ter­noon play­ing golf with World Bank Pres­i­dent Jim Yong Kim. “To­gether we’ve shown what’s pos­si­ble when the world stands as one.”

Obama said the ac­cord would send a pow­er­ful sig­nal, chan­nel in­vest­ment into low-car­bon projects and spur job cre­ation in those ar­eas.

The pres­i­dent also said that he imag­ined walk­ing with his grand­chil­dren­watch­ing a“quiet sun­set” and know­ing that “our work here and now gave fu­ture gen­er­a­tions cleaner air and cleaner wa­ter and a more sus­tain­able planet. And what can be more im­por­tant than that?”

For Obama, the Paris agree­ment ful­fills a per­sonal as well as a po­lit­i­cal goal, one that was de­layed at the be­gin­ning of his ad­min­is­tra­tion be­cause of the acute eco­nomic cri­sis and the po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal he de­voted to over­haul­ing the health-care sys­tem. By the end of 2009, a cap-and-trade bill passed by the House had failed in the Se­nate, and the in­ter­na­tional Copen­hagen cli­mate sum­mit had ended in tur­moil.

“It’s been a frus­tra­tion of his from the be­gin­ning, and it was par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult at the height of the eco­nomic cri­sis. He knows that if you poll peo­ple on cli­mate change, it’s on the bot­tom of the list,” said David Ax­el­rod, who was Obama’s chief elec­tion strate­gist and later se­nior ad­viser. “Peo­ple felt there was a tension with deal­ing with cli­mate change and deal­ing with the econ­omy.”

Over five years, how­ever, Obama has turned de­feat and dis­ar­ray into a po­lit­i­cal vic­tory that could be­come one of the most en­dur­ing lega­cies of his pres­i­dency.

Obama “felt a moral obli­ga­tion to do some­thing about” cli­mate change, Ax­el­rod said. “This is not just a cos­metic item on his list. This is core stuff for him.”

Do­mes­ti­cally, Obama has done through reg­u­la­tion what he was un­able to do through leg­is­la­tion. He used the bailout of the auto in­dus­try to ex­tract con­ces­sions on higher fuel-ef­fi­ciency stan­dards. Later, he added trucks, and, still later, he at­tacked coal-pow­er­plant emis­sions through the Clean Power Plan. Cheap ex­trac­tion of shale gas as a re­place­ment for coal also helped; nat­u­ral gas com­bus­tion emits half the car­bon diox­ide as coal.

“We may end up hav­ing to do it inc hunks, as op­posed to some sort of com­pre­hen­sive om­nibus leg­is­la­tion,” the pres­i­dent said in a Rolling Stone in­ter­view in Oc­to­ber 2010.

Those chunks were the foun­da­tion of the in­ter­na­tional agree­ment signed Satur­day in Paris. John Podesta, a for­mer se­nior White House ad­viser who sup­ported an ag­gres­sive cli­mate pol­icy, said Obama “un­der­stood he couldn’t have a suc­cess­ful diplo­matic out­come with­out hav­ing a really for­ward-lean­ing, cred­i­ble pro­gram in the U.S.”

“That was his fo­cus, to get the do­mes­tic side right,” Podesta said.

On the in­ter­na­tional front, Obama dis­played some of the same po­lit­i­cal im­pulses that got him elected pres­i­dent — a mix of ide­al­ism, prag­ma­tism and hope.

Obama the ide­al­ist tried to rally world lead­ers to do as much as with the means avail­able for the sake of pos­ter­ity.

He pushed China and In­dia to con­trol hy­dro flu­o­ro­car­bons, po­tent green­house gases from ma­te­rial used in re­frig­er­a­tion and air con­di­tion­ing.

Obama the prag­ma­tist dis­carded the idea of a grand bar­gain with top-down, uni­form cuts in green­house-gas emis­sions. In­stead, he em­braced an ap­proach that re­lies on a se­ries of in­di­vid­ual pledges from coun­tries to do as much as pos­si­ble within their con­straints.

Obama be­lieved that an early pub­lic pledge from China, which was af­flicted with air thick with con­ven­tional pol­lu­tants, would help bring other de­vel­op­ing coun­tries on board. “Through­out 2014, we viewed get­ting the Chi­nese to be am­bi­tious and ac­tive play­ers as crit­i­cal to a pos­i­tive out­come in Paris,” said Podesta, who is now chair­man of Hil­lary Clin­ton’ s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Obama played a per­sonal role, too .“It was really the pres­i­dent’s per­sonal en­ergy and com­mit­ment,” Podesta added, “and that made the dif­fer­ence.”

When it came to the U.S. pledge, how­ever, Obama made no ef­fort to in­tro­duce a car­bon tax, which he fa­vors but says would never win sup­port in the cur­rent Congress. And his prom­ises of fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to poor de­vel­op­ing na­tions to adapt to cli­mate change have been mod­est, and even those could fail to win con­gres­sional ap­proval.

Obama the re­al­ist knows that even if all the com­mit­ments are met, they will still fall short of what’s needed to stem cli­mate dam­age to the planet.

So, Obama the hope­ful has en­cour­aged and ap­plauded the ef­forts of Mi­crosoft co-founder Bill Gates and more than two dozen other wealthy in­vestors seek­ing to fund a search for an in­no­va­tion that would make up for the short-pos­si­ble com­ings of the other ef­forts.

“Now, Bill has pointed out, and he’s ab­so­lutely right, that we’re also go­ing to have to just in­vent some en­tirely new tech­nolo­gies,” Obama said in Paris at an event with Gates, French Pres­i­dent François Hol­lande and In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi. “I mean, the truth is, if we adapt ex­ist­ing tech­nolo­gies and make them cheaper and faster and more read­ily avail­able, if we im­prove en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, we’re still only go­ing to get part of the way there, and there’s still go­ing to be a big gap to fill.”

Many en­vi­ron­men­tal groups and cli­mate ex­perts would call that wish­ful think­ing or a magic as­ter­isk to fill in the gap be­tween Paris com­mit­ments and as­pi­ra­tions. But it has put Obama firmly in two dis­tinct cli­mate ac­tion camps: one that be­lieves that enough ac­tion can be taken now us­ing avail­able tech­nol­ogy to meet the tar­get tem­per­a­ture and one that be­lieves that only tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion will pre­vent cli­mate dis­as­ter.

Ted Nord­haus, co-founder of the Break­through In­sti­tute and ad­vo­cate of an Apollo Project-type ef­fort to cul­ti­vate new tech­nolo­gies, wel­comed “the recog­ni­tion that we do not, in fact, have all the tech­nol­ogy we need to achieve deep re­duc­tions in emis­sions.”

Nord­haus said: “No large econ­omy in the world has yet suc­ceeded in making a big dent in emis­sions with renewables. Present­day nu­clear has been taken off the ta­ble by most of the de­vel­oped world and is grow­ing too slowly in places like China to really move the nee­dle.”

And Obama, for all the progress he helped wran­gle from world lead­ers, seems to agree. “We don’t yet know ex­actly what’s go­ing to work best,” he said. “But we know that if we put our best minds be­hind it and we have the dol­lars be­hind it, we’ll dis­cover what works. We al­ways have in the past, and we will this time as well.”

POOL PHOTO BY ERIC FE­FER­BERG VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Obama at the U.N. Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence last month. As ne­go­tia­tors hud­dled in Paris last week, Obama was weigh­ing in by phone with the lead­ers of France, Brazil, China and In­dia.

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