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After Elections, U.S. Leadership on Climate Crisis is Critical

American leadership is critical to solving the climate crisis, but yesterday’s election made our ability to provide that leadership much tougher. Last year, our partners had unrealistic expectations of how aggressively the Obama administration could move in setting targets for emission reductions, leading to disappointment with the U.S. position at Copenhagen. Then, with the death of the cap-and-trade legislation, the administration assured the international community that it had the tools to meet our pledges under the Copenhagen Accord: using EPA regulations under the Clean Air Act; a push toward building-block clean energy policies like renewable energy standards; and action at the state level.

Now, with a Republican controlled House of Representatives, with many members who campaigned against climate action, near-term prospects for compromise on clean energy policy are poor. This, coupled with the expected aggressive legal challenges to forthcoming EPA CO2 emission regulations, undermines our ability to use even these tools.

The defeat in California of Proposition 23, which would have killed the state climate change law, bucks this trend. The defeat of Proposition 23 allows continued movement at the state and regional level, but even here legal challenges will be mounted.

On the international front, the election results will give an excuse for inaction toward a global agreement to those partners who were already backing away from the Copenhagen Accord. This will make progress toward international cooperation in the upcoming Cancun meetings, already difficult, even more problematic.

So, on the national and international fronts we can expect a shift to “bottom-up” action—testing of approaches like California’s climate change policies; technology cooperation between nations; continued investment by China and other rapidly industrializing nations in clean energy solutions. But if these bottom-up actions are to be steps toward a global solution, the United States must regain leadership.

A national dialogue to listen to the concerns of citizens who are worried about the state of the economy and jobs, to give voice to those citizens who want to see action to fight the climate crisis, and to create a positive vision toward a future driven by clean energy innovation needs to start now.

  • Katherine Sierra is a nonresident senior fellow in Global Economy and Development program who focuses on climate change, with a particular emphasis on the issues and policies in the developing world. Ms. Sierra has more than 30 years experience as a development professional, previously serving as a senior executive at the World Bank.