Obama’s self-reliance - Monocolumn | Monocle


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9 December 2009

If nothing else, the first week of the COP15 conference will be remembered as a demonstration that it is possible to get the world’s most opinionated people to agree on something – as long as the issue is climate change, and the target demographic comprises of centre-left editorialists.

A Guardian-drafted editorial calling on countries to agree to “deep cuts which will reduce their emissions within a decade” appeared on the Monday front pages of 56 newspapers across 45 countries. In most of them, the editorial ran in the most prestigious media outlet possible, from Clarín and Ma’ariv to Le Monde and Novaya Gazeta. In the US, however, the best it could do was the Miami Herald, a third-tier American paper with little influence on national debates.

That absence says something about the institutional mores of US editorial boards, and a bit more about the fact that even as American awareness has been raised about global warming, the topic remains a niche policy crusade. American papers have dispatched their environmental reporters to Copenhagen and, with White House correspondents accompanying Barack Obama, the COP15 is likely to draw plenty of attention from political editors. But the story is, at best, the third-biggest in Washington this week, trailing the Senate fight over Obama’s health-insurance bill and his announcement of a new war plan in Afghanistan.

The latest Nielsen Global Omni Online Survey places the US among the world’s most apathetic countries on the issue. Only 25 per cent of Americans say they are very concerned about global warming, down from 34 per cent two years ago. That is half the number in South Africa, and one-third compared to the Philippines. (Americans do perform relatively well compared to their jaded hosts: Nielsen found only 24 per cent of Danes are “very concerned”.)

More interestingly, the Nielsen survey concludes that North Americans see climate change as an issue demanding personal initiative (reducing energy use, recycling) over government intervention. Americans are wary of trusting the government to take action, especially if it demands international co-ordination. The environmental media has done its part to create a sense of learned helplessness, through constant appeals to enlightened bulb-changing practises and reminders that driving a Prius is the height of responsible citizenship.

The White House seems to have learned this already. After insisting early on that he expected to pass an energy bill before Copenhagen, by mid-year Obama effectively gave up. He decided that his health-insurance bill and financial reform had better prospects than an effort to restrict emissions.

This week Obama’s administration, invoking “public danger”, announced that it would exercise its regulatory power to restrict emissions. This has been an option from the beginning, but the White House feared antagonising Congress over such an uncertain issue. Now the onus will fall on legislators to offer their own solution, and give Obama greater freedom to negotiate when he touches down in Copenhagen. Obama, leader of a national cult of self-reliance, has learned that only personal initiative can solve the climate crisis.


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