On Climate Change, U.S. Must Set Example for the World

Mekong Delta, Vietnam. (David Conger, Flickr)
Mekong Delta, Vietnam. (David Conger, Flickr)

Last week, former American Vice President Al Gore sharply criticized the Obama administration for failing to significantly alter United States policy on climate change and energy. We asked our Sustainability Roundtable to discuss the role American leadership should play in shaping government policies on climate change throughout Asia. Additionally, what global leadership role exists for developed and developing Asian countries themselves in areas like clean energy and global warming mitigation? Is the possibility of a global deal on climate change completely dead? If so, can it be resuscitated?

Shen Yamei is an assistant research fellow specializing in American foreign policy and China-US relations at the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS).

Obama’s policy on climate change and energy bears a three-fold purpose, stimulating economic recovery, enhancing national security and improving its international leadership image. In the past two more years, scores have been achieved in pursuing a set of measures on climate mitigation and new energy development.

However, Obama is still faced with domestic resistance and foreign pressure, which constitutes an obstacle as well as a hidden opportunity for deeper introspection and broader international cooperation as well, if the U.S. would lead the world in adapting to climate change and energy shortage.

To illustrate, the administration needs to increase public awareness of the environment, rather than allowing attention to be narrowly focused on the sweeping economic crisis.

Legal processes in both the House and Senate need to be facilitated, exempt from the conflicting intervention from lobby groups representing the interests of traditional industries such as petroleum and automobile. And the administration needs to approach the emissions reduction target, albeit by modest steps, to set an example for the world.

On the part of countries in Asia, due to Asia’s huge vulnerability to natural disasters resulting from climate change and energy shortage, and in light of the tremendous amount of pressure on food, water and energy security accompanying the accelerating pace of economic rise of Asia as a whole, it is of vital importance to seek a mode of green, or sustainable, development.

In so doing, a good potential exists for cooperation among regional countries, as well as between regional countries and the U.S. As a matter of fact, in U.S. Secretary of State Clinton’s first visit to Asia in February 2009, immediately after the Obama administration took office, climate issue ranked high on the agenda.

Since July 2009, the U.S. has launched a Lower Mekong Initiative and pledged for 187 million US dollars to projects helping countries concerned lessen the impact of climate change. In future, functional cooperation needs to be explored regarding clean technology.

A global pact on climate change will only be possible based on close bonds among multiple countries. Otherwise, negotiating such a pact would be like building the Tower of Babel, with each participant speaking a different language and not listening at all to what the others are saying. And when the Tower collapses, the poorest countries would inevitably be buried first.