President Obama succeeded in what he set out to do because he learned from Al Gore’s mistakes

Pincas Jawetz, SustainabiliTank.info Media.

The Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in December 1997 as a legally binding agreement under which industrialised countries were to reduce their collective emissions by 5.2 per cent compared to 1990 emissions (it is worth noting that this represented a 29 per cent emission cut by 2010 compared to an unmanaged emission scenario). This was achieved without putting any onus on those that claimed the right to pollute because they were at an industrialising stage of development. Vice President Al Gore came to Kyoto to help push the participants to accept this deal. But on July 25, 1997, by the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, the U.S. Senate led by Southern Republican Strom Thurmond, shot down the budding Protocol by an unprecedented 95-0 vote.

Al Gore’s heart was in the right place but his political know-how questionable and his leadership caused harm to his cause. Later on, in his run for the Presidency, Al Gore found himself squeezed between his own decision not to let Clinton help him – and the Green ‘Naderites’ that found him lacking in part because of the failure to find support for the Kyoto Protocol. President Obama was well familiar with the two great mistakes of Al Gore: 1) The fact that he did not understand that the Senators will never allow for a U.S. unilateral decrease in emissions if the growth of China and other countries will not bear a proportion of the responsibility. 2) That you must not speak of a legally binding international agreement because you really do not want to risk a vote in the Senate.

Looking back at the history of sustainable development and climate change, one has to start at the Rio Summit of 1992 with its high point in Agenda 21 and then go to COP1 of the UNFCCC in Berlin (1995) and jump to Kyoto (1997), followed by the empty years of the G.W. Bush/Cheney administration – until we reach the Copenhagen COP15 of 2009. That is when newly elected President Obama made his first move by going to Beijing on his way to the Conference in an attempt to make inroads with China. The Chinese agreed for the first time that they have grown to the point that they ought to worry about the effect of their emissions on the global environment and climate – but they were not ready to take the plunge without sharing this with the other BASIC countries - Brazil, India and South Africa. It took six more years for that first effort by President Obama to bear the fruits of the Paris COP21. Now the subject has opened up with nearly all countries having made voluntary commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and agreed to report their achievements on a cyclical basis. It is obvious the present commitments are only a first step in the right direction; it is anticipated that negotiations will now be possible between participating countries to further increase their efforts to decrease emissions. But one must start somewhere and Obama led to this starting position. The Senate cannot undo this.

The fact that in the meantime we saw the evolution of a sizable middle class in China that demands clean air has induced President Xi to be cooperative, but he still must keep an image of a developing country in his relationships with the old industrialised world and the lesser developed states. He is therefore slow in accepting outside monitoring of his forthcoming efforts – something that relates extremely well with another lesson President Obama has learned from Al Gore’s mistakes. President Obama does not want a strict legally binding agreement in his fight to move the world onto a path of slowing the effects of climate change. Why should he be interested in being undone by a Republican Senate obstructionist rejection?

Finally, on December 1, 2015, we received e-mail from the American Security Project (ASP) stating that former Senator Chuck Hagel – originator of the Resolution that found failing the Kyoto Protocol on counts that it did not require all nations to commit to limit the emissions and that it promised to seriously do harm to the American economy – now Board Member of ASP, now recommends the Paris Agreement and tells the U.S. Senate to get involved because climate change is a multiplier to instigators of conflicts such as resource disputes, ethnic tensions, and economic discontent. It is thus a security issue.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pincas Jawetz, Editor of SustainabiliTank.info Media and former Consultant on Energy Policy.