DOHA, Qatar -- When President Obama was elected four years ago, the international climate community cheered. Here was an American leader, they said, who would sweep aside eight years of U.S. inaction and obstruction on international climate policy and put the weight of the world's largest economy behind carbon mitigation and aid to vulnerable countries.
But delegates and observers attending the U.N. climate talks this week in Doha are more muted when discussing a second Obama term, balancing hope for the future with disappointment over what many see as the United States' lackluster performance in his first term.
The United States has insisted, for example, that it will sign a legally binding agreement to curb emissions only if China, India and other major developing emitters agree to be bound as well. It has not adopted a comprehensive carbon regime at home and has not offered specifics on what its contribution will be on aid to poor countries now and after 2020.
Top U.S. negotiators have taken a somewhat defensive tone at times during the current talks, arguing that the world underestimates what America has accomplished under Obama and pointing to stepped-up fuel economy requirements for vehicles, future regulations for power plants and other policies they say will help the largest historical carbon emitter ratchet down its emissions.
U.S. Special Envoy Todd Stern took that tack today, telling reporters at a briefing that the first Obama term has seen massive reductions in emissions. While some of that is happening because "there's a revolution going on right now in the U.S. with respect to natural gas," he said, the administration also deserves credit for fostering low-emissions technologies and efficiency while requiring high-emitting sectors such as coal-fired power plants to reduce their emissions.
"The president since he was re-elected, including the night in his victory speech on the night of the election, has been talking about his commitment to try to take further action," he said.
Obama said in Chicago early on the morning of Nov. 7 that his second term would ensure the country "isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."
The administration has already made a down payment on that promise, Stern said, including having played a "strong and solid" role in international climate negotiations.
But E.U. Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard told reporters in a briefing immediately before Stern that the United States is still lagging in ambition behind the European Union, which has signed on to a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol while the United States hasn't ratified the treaty. And Europe is ahead in overall emissions reductions as well, she said.
"I know that also a lot of efforts are going on in the U.S. as in many other places," she said. But she said the European Union has decreased its emissions by 18 percent compared with 1990 levels, while U.S. emissions have risen in that time by 10.8 percent.
The use of 1990 as a benchmark is controversial, in part because it coincided with a period of high E.U. emissions that some say gives the bloc an advantage in calculating later emissions reductions. The United States measures its emissions reductions from 2005.
But Hedegaard said the world is gasping for additional cuts across the board if it is to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
"We are moving very, very fast in the wrong direction," she said. "All of us will have to do more."
She said the United States should focus on the new legal agreement called for in last year's Durban Platform, which is set to be finalized in 2015 and to take effect five years later.
"I think that that is where a very strong U.S. involvement in the coming years will be needed," she said. "And I think that could also play a role for how the whole dynamic of the discussions from 2013 all the way until 2015 will unfold."
Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and now head of the Mary Robinson Foundation on Climate Justice, said Obama and his negotiators will have to step up their game.
"It's clear that the U.S. is going to have to give real leadership on climate change," she said. "Because of the disappointment, there is expectation that Obama will now put climate change on the political agenda as a priority."
Prodipto Ghosh, head of the climate change task force with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said he, too, hopes to see more from Obama's second term but hasn't seen any signs of stronger U.S. commitment in Doha.
"I have been following the negotiations for many, many years, and I have seen two administrations of the Republicans, and I have seen the Obama administration. In the negotiations, we find that the position of the U.S. has not changed one bit from the Republican administration," Ghosh said. "When we hear the present U.S. negotiators, we find no difference between what they say and what their predecessors said."
Young activists, stars agree
Delegates and others walking the halls at the Doha Exhibition Center and attending side events said Obama had not impressed them on climate issues in his first term and would need to make up for lost time now that his bid for re-election is behind him.
They included at least one person famous outside the rarified circles of international climate policy: Model-turned-human rights campaigner Bianca Jagger said the Obama administration has been a disappointment on climate action.
She called for the United States in Doha to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol but acknowledged that isn't likely. Second best, she said, would be for Obama to "have a conversation with the American people and Congress about the need for the U.S. to lead."
She said that Obama's second term holds promise but that as nations move forward on a possible new treaty, she is keeping her expectations in check.
"I was at Copenhagen, and there was so much expectation. I wouldn't say that I have the same kind of expectation," she said. "What I hope is that he will level with us this time."
And while the president has generally earned rave reviews from younger demographics, that has not been the case in Doha. Tmila Dhalwah, 25, a youth activist from Nepal, said she, too, is cautiously optimistic about Obama's plans to fight climate change.
"It seems like even though he wants to, he seems so constrained. Why can't he be stronger?" she asked.
Adam Greenberg of the advocacy group SustainUS said Obama should realize that climate change is not a back-burner issue for the young people who helped elect him twice and who will have to cope with a legacy of climate inaction.
"We've heard his promises on climate action, we're waiting, and we're going to bring all of the power that we can to bear on that," he said.
U.S. groups weigh in
The Washington-based advocacy groups that watch the U.N. climate process most closely gave the United States mixed views for its climate actions at home and abroad. Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the United States does indeed have a strong story to tell about its fuel efficiency measures. Those regulations combined with carbon cuts from power plant regulations will significantly curb U.S. emissions, and the Obama administration deserves credit for that, he said.
But Meyer added: "The problem is they stop there. They don't say that's the down payment on what we need to do, not only to get to 17 percent but to blow through 17 percent. They've got a good story, but it's an unfinished book. They have to say what the other chapters are going to be."
Jake Schmidt, director of international policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed, adding, "It doesn't help that there is no official plan and they can't say exactly what the EPA is going to do."
But Paul Bledsoe, an independent policy consultant who has worked on energy issues on Capitol Hill and in the Clinton administration, said the United States not only has a strong story to tell about what it has done over the last few years to reduce emissions, but should parlay that into a tougher stance at the negotiations.
He noted that the United States is on track to meet its Copenhagen commitments of reducing greenhouse gases by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, provided it moves forward with the regulations and actions as it is expected to do for coal-fired power plants and other sectors.
"That should embolden negotiators to push China, India and other developing countries to take on more aggressive targets and in time it should allow the U.S. to do the same," he said.
"If you're meeting your targets, you have enhanced credibility to insist others do the same," he said.
But many parties have complained that the U.S. targets aren't strong enough.
Harjeet Singh, international coordinator for ActionAid, mocked the U.S. effort in Doha to talk up the work it has done to meet its Copenhagen target.
"What is it that they want to get credit for?" Singh asked. "You look at all the streams of work here, and there is no progress. Just putting out those unambitious, flimsy numbers, they want to get credit? That's just funny."