Uncle Sam: Superhero?

I’ve just returned from Europe with a new understanding of what the world expects from the United States on global climate change, now that Barack Obama will be president.

In a word: Everything.

I spent two days in Poznan, Poland, at the 14th Conference of the Parties – the gathering of nations now underway to work on a global climate deal scheduled to be signed one year from now in Copenhagen. From there, I went to London for a series of meetings with business and environmental leaders. Because I’ve been involved in proposing a climate action plan for the next president and Congress – one of dozens undoubtedly descending upon the transition team – everyone wanted my take on what President Obama will do.

The weather in Poland was cold and gloomy, the weather in London was cool and foggy, but the mood in both places was sunny in anticipation of U.S. leadership. Obama’s approaching inauguration has filled international climate activists with hope.

But – and this will be good news for the president-elect – I came away with the sense that the world community isn’t expecting Obama to be Captain America, single-handedly preventing a tragic decline in the Earth’s hospitality to our species. The world expects the superhero to be America, the nation. Obama’s election isn’t seen as the anointment of a miracle-worker; it’s seen as a sign that America has returned to its senses, has reasserted its ideals in a way that surprised even us Americans, and has become in the words of one colleague in London, “cool again”.

(At one event in London, I spoke to a gathering of environmental leaders at the historic East India Club, where the walls are adorned with portraits of the United Kingdom’s heroes. As the stern visage of Winston Churchill looked down upon us, I was reminded of something he said that perfectly summarizes the state of climate policy in the United States as Obama takes office: “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”)

I trust that others who stuck around Poznan longer and who are more directly involved in the negotiations will report on progress when the conference ends in a few days. I want merely to report that the global community is once again investing its hope in the United States. I heard the same message in London from cabbies to business and civil leaders: After eight years on the dark side, eight years in which America seemed to forsake its highest and best values, and eight years in which Washington, D.C. has been a wholly owned subsidiary of Big Oil, the world believes the United States is back again, in the nick of time. Or so my small sample of Europeans indicates.

“No other nation can do this,” one environmental leader told me, referring to the need for leadership on climate action. “No other nation is as innovative and creative and as able to break loose from the status quo.”

More than 11,000 delegates from 187 nations, along with leaders from business and non-governmental organizations, have assembled in Poznan to work on a post-Kyoto climate agreement. Between now and next December, they will have to bridge the wide gap between developed and developing nations. It’s easy to be skeptical. There is widespread speculation in Washington, D.C., that the Congress will not be able to pass a cap-and-trade bill next year – a failure that some experts say would take the wind out of the sails of international resolve for a global agreement.

But however we do it – with a carbon trading bill or in other substantial ways – we Americans cannot let the world down. I’ve always heard that the world looks to the United States for hope. But until television showed the joy in the faces of people around the world on election night and until my trip to Europe last week, I never fully realized how large we loom in the global aspiration to get climate change under control.


William S. Becker is the Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Plan (PCAP), a project of the University of Colorado, Wirth Chair, charged with producing
a 100 day action plan on climate change for the next President of the United States, and the author of THE 100 DAY ACTION PLAN TO SAVE THE PLANET, available in eBook format from St. Martins Griffin.

Published on Reuters

Related articles:

Toward a New Energy Economy: Part 2 Tough Questions, Tough Answers
Toward a New Energy Economy: Part 1 Action in 100 Days
The 100 Day Action Plan to Save the Planet
Struggling for Obama's Soul