Rays of hope amidst the frustration

It has not been an entirely encouraging week of climate news, but there are still reasons to be hopeful.

As Katherine wrote the other day, President Obama is certainly in a tight spot when it comes to global warming policy. In his inaugural address he vowed to “restore science to its rightful place,” but he has many other major policy initiatives on his plate. And given the extremely well-funded opposition, passing strong climate change legislation will require heaps of political capital.

Many folks in the environmental community became understandably frustrated with his lack of follow-through on his commitment to restore science to prominence in the climate debate when he seemed to sit back and watch a House bill get rewritten by the coal industry and their friends in Congress.

Making matters worse, it’s now official: the Senate won’t even be considering their own version of climate legislation until 2010. Of course there was also the announcement, made while Obama was meeting with (some) other world leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting this past weekend, that they would punt on establishing a legally binding climate treaty in Copenhagen this December. Some time next year, perhaps, is the new timeline for dealing with the most urgent environmental crisis of our times. The lack of a domestic policy was apparently being used to set Obama’s foreign policy, or at least used as a scapegoat for why his administration is actively stalling a global climate deal.

This is obviously unacceptable given that we are already experiencing the effects of global warming, and they’re only going to continue to get worse. The news that global emissions actually rose by 2% last year, mostly led by China, makes the need for ambitious and binding emissions targets and other measures to combat global warming painfully clear.

So it’s a tiny ray of hope that while meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao this week, President Obama apparently established a “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine” deal on emissions:

Buried in the text of Tuesday’s joint declaration between President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao was a hopeful clause about climate talks: The Obama administration is likely to offer emission-reduction targets at next month’s climate summit, as long as the Chinese offer a proposal of their own.

U.S. reluctance to set a short-term emissions goal has been a sticking point in the U.N.-sponsored talks for nearly a year. Almost all industrialized nations, and many developing countries, have announced plans to curb their greenhouse-gas output by 2020. Neither the United States nor China — which is not obligated to do so under the U.N. framework, even though it ranks as the world’s biggest emitter — has done so, thereby hampering the prospects of an agreement.

So perhaps Obama has heard the criticism of him not restoring science to its proper place. Perhaps he is sensitive to the criticisms that he is letting Congress set foreign policy, and is attempting to address the issue. One thing is certainly clear: At this point, the only thing that will get results is massive popular demand for climate solutions.

That’s why I was so heartened by a recent episode in Indonesia, where Greenpeace has set up a Climate Defenders Camp in the heart of the threatened rainforest to highlight deforestation’s role in global warming. When the Indonesian authorities came to close down the camp, over 300 local Indonesians showed up to protest and the police relented. Seriously, this was just an amazing display of non-violent resistance and civic activism. It shows how desperately the people of the world want solutions to the climate crisis we’re facing.

If we keep pushing them, our leaders will have to listen.

Photo courtesy of Elsie esq. via Flickr.

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