President Obama has a "last window of opportunity" to get it right on climate change, U.N. Foundation President Tim Wirth warned this week.
The former Democratic U.S. senator from Colorado and undersecretary of state for Global Affairs under President Clinton lamented the outcome of this month's U.N. conference in Durban, South Africa, as doing little to avert catastrophic warming.
But while American negotiators Todd Stern and Jonathan Pershing bore the brunt of international frustration with the United States in Durban, Wirth said the real blame belongs with the Obama administration for casting climate policy adrift. The coming year, both despite and because of the 2012 presidential campaign, he said, will be critical for refocusing White House attention.
"I can't blame these guys," Wirth said of Pershing and Stern. "I don't know what they could have done to do any better without a different political dynamic. They were under very tight instruction."
But in a lengthy interview with ClimateWire, Wirth went on to skewer what he described as the Obama administration's lack of focus on climate change, and outline a comprehensive vision for the coming year.
"I don't know who and where the climate leadership in the administration is. It doesn't exist. There is no resolve in the Obama administration to do anything, and I think they look at Congress and say, 'We can't do anything, so why break our pick now?'" Wirth said.
He argued that the administration and environmental groups alike must "spend the year 2012 setting the table for the next four years." Dismissing the possibility of a Republican win in November, Wirth called a second Obama administration term "the last window of opportunity" to enact policies that can avert a catastrophic rise in global temperatures.
"It's the last chance we have to get anything approaching 2 degrees Centigrade," he said. "If we don't do it now, we are committing the world to a drastically different place."
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Talking to the 'committed' and 'couldn't care less' constituencies
Wirth's criticisms came on the eve of a major U.S. EPA ruling to cut toxic pollutants like mercury and acid gases. The decision is expected to force the closure of some of the nation's dirtiest coal plants, and environmental activists hailed it. Yet since the disintegration of national cap-and-trade legislation last year -- and the subsequent departure of Obama's energy and climate czar, Carol Browner, to the private sector -- green groups complain that the White House has steadily distanced itself from the issue.
Other prominent Democrats have taken shots at Obama on climate change recently, as well. Notably, former Vice President Al Gore, in an essay for Rolling Stone earlier this year, accused the administration of dropping the ball on "bold action" ClimateWire, June 23).
"President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis," Gore wrote. "He has simply not made the case for action. He has not defended the science against the ongoing, withering and dishonest attacks. Nor has he provided a presidential venue for the scientific community -- including our own National Academy -- to bring the reality of the science before the public."
Wirth, meanwhile, from his perch at the influential U.N. Foundation offered the Obama administration a laundry list of political and substantive solutions.
Topping the list, he said, was "clarifying" public opinion on climate change and identifying different political constituencies on climate action -- ones he delineated as: "big committed," "probably," "not really paying attention," "couldn't care less" and "it's all a big fraud." He called for a series of strategies related to climate science as well as finding new ways to energize the 60 to 65 percent of Americans he claimed are in favor of taking significant steps to address climate change.
"You have to identify the language to talk to them," Wirth said. "It's not a matter of putting more science in front of the American public. It's a very sophisticated, modern, cognitive analysis." Meanwhile, the solutions he outlined never strayed toward sweeping cap-and-trade or carbon tax legislation, but rather were building block measures like energy efficiency and research and development on clean energy and natural gas, of which Wirth has been a major advocate. He also argued that the White House should tap a new point person -- like John Podesta, who is stepping down from the liberal Center for American Progress -- to head up a series of task forces on climate and energy.
"We have to get the administration to talk about this during the campaign. He's [Obama] got to have the right language for this. It's got to be made a priority, and he's got to talk about it on a steady basis," Wirth said. "There's no magic moment, and there's no magic bullet, just basic coalition-building. It's hard work and it's very tedious, but this is the last window of opportunity."