Cross-posted from usclimateplan.orgThe 19th Conference of the Parties (COP19) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—the annual meeting of delegates aimed at creating an international framework for dealing with climate change—began yesterday in Warsaw, Poland amidst nationalist protests and rioting and with a large coal summit in the background.
As the talks kicked off with the opening plenary speeches, the lead negotiator for the Philippines, Yeb Saño, drew our attention to another crisis that was unfolding six-thousand miles away—the climate crisis.
Or, at the very least, the kinds of extreme weather events we can begin to expect as the new normal if countries do not act rapidly to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases—as highlighted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent report.
In a passionate speech, Mr. Saño drew attention to the plight his country was undergoing from “Super-typhoon” Haiyan—a storm that some are calling the largest in recorded history—and commenced a hunger strike until meaningful outcomes for the Warsaw talks were in sight. Many youth and other activists present at Warsaw and abroad have joined him in solidarity.
The speech issued a call to action for international negotiators and the world, to “take drastic action now to ensure that we prevent a future where super typhoons are a way of life.” He calls for the mobilization of pledged resources for the Green Climate Fund, establishment of a loss and damage mechanism for adverse impacts of climate change, and large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions for all countries.
But what would true U.S. leadership on climate look like in an international context? Moreover, how can we act meaningfully at home with a polarized Congress?
While large domestic emissions reductions will ultimately require Congressional action, as outlined in a recent report, there is much that the Obama administration can do under existing authority to improve our government’s impact on climate change issues internationally.
First, as President Obama continues his call for the repeal of domestic subsidies for fossil fuels, he must continue beating that drum internationally, as well. While scrapping wasteful subsidies at home would only reduce overall domestic emissions by a small amount, responsible reform could have a profound impact internationally where subsidies are proportionately larger.
If we are going to call for countries to abandon direct subsidies of fossil fuels, then we shouldn’t be indirectly providing subsidies through financing by our international development banks. In 2012, the Export-Import Bank of the United States (ExIm) provided financing for a record $9.6 billion in fossil fuel projects abroad according to its own reports. In contrast, it only financed $356 million in renewable energy development. Standards to essentially end ExIm financing of coal-fired power plants are on the way, but we can do much more. ExIm should shift funding away from all fossil fuel related development, including extraction projects, transmission infrastructure, and export facilities.
In 2010, the U.S. launched the Unconventional Gas Technical Engagement Program (UGTEP, formerly the Global Shale Gas Initiative) “in order to help countries seeking to utilize their unconventional natural gas resources to identify and develop them safely and economically.” The Obama Administration and the natural gas industry are peddling natural gas as a cleaner-than-coal “bridge fuel” to renewable energy. In addition to the very serious local environmental risks that extraction of shale gas poses, global over-reliance on natural gas will still lead to a drastically warmer world. This will be especially true if we do not get methane leakages across natural gas systems under control—this powerful short lived climate pollutant has the potential to drive us past dangerous climate tipping points. Instead of peddling global development of shale gas and hooking the world on yet another fossil fuel, the United States should abolish UGTEP and partner with other renewable energy leaders to create a Global Renewable Energy and Efficiency Network (G.R.E.E.E.N.). Such a partnership could promote best practices, encourage cooperation, and exchange of the best innovations in renewable energy and energy efficiency and accelerate global adoption of solutions.
Lastly, as a nation, we need to take a stand on our exports of fossil fuels. As our emissions begin to decline, we cannot in good faith “talk-the-talk” on climate and pursue deeper reductions domestically while our corporations profit from the combustion of national resources abroad—it doesn’t matter where a greenhouse gas is emitted, but rather that it is emitted. To “walk-the-walk,” we must acknowledge this and begin to control our exports of fossil fuels. Luckily, approval of fossil fuel export projects are in the President’s control. Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the executive branch can and should reject major projects under federal jurisdiction determined to have significant impact on global emissions. Rejecting coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest, Liquified Natural Gas export terminals, and international export pipelines like Keystone XL would set a major precedent that other world leaders could follow to the two thirds of fossil fuel reserves that must remain buried in the ground.
As Yeb Saño continues his hunger strike, world leaders should think about how they can double down on their commitments to preserving a livable planet for future generations. Even in the United States, a country with such polarizing politics, there is much we can be doing now to turn the tide. As civil society, we must all continue to push our leaders to live up to these commitments. After all, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”