My, what a difference three years makes. In November 2008, then president-elect Barack Obama spoke to a conference of U.S. governors, saying in no uncertain terms that the U.S. was ready to join the world in the fight against global warming.
Now, three days into COP17 in Durban, the U.S. is being lambasted by negotiators and eco-advocates for stonewalling progress on climate change.
In a strongly worded letter addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, published on November 29, leaders of 16 major environmental groups admonished the U.S. for undercutting the talks.
"America risks being viewed not as a global leader on climate change, but as a major obstacle to progress," they wrote. "U.S. positions on two major issues – the mandate for future negotiations and climate finance – threaten to impede in Durban the global cooperation so desperately needed to address the threat of climate change."
Meanwhile, in Durban, delegates from European and African nations also denounced the U.S. for a lack of leadership on climate change.
As Mali’s Seyni Nafo told the Associated Press: "We use and we welcome their leadership on democracy, on access to markets, on human rights issues. We would want to have the same leadership to tackle climate change, because for us in the developing world the biggest threat, the biggest enemy, is climate change."
So what's the problem? As the letter from the environmental groups points out, the U.S. position in Durban demands that developing nations -- which are currently exempt from greenhouse gas reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol -- agree to legally binding emissions cuts in any next-generation treaty, with no phase-in period of voluntary cuts.
Simultaneously, the U.S. is demanding that developing nations drop their own pre-condition for economic development aid, or "climate finance," from industrialized nations.
The U.S. and other industrial superpowers mindlessly burned fossil fuels for over a century, catapulting to unprecedented prosperity in growth. In effect, the U.S. is demanding that poor countries make the tough decisions, while not making any on its own.
At HuffPo Green, Tom Zeller Jr. offers a detailed analysis of the U.S. position at the climate talks. It's worth the read.
Photo: Part of the South African Petroleum Refinery (SAPREF) is seen during the COP17 (Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Climate Change) climate talks in Durban. (Siphewe Sibeko / Reuters)