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AFP/Getty Images[/caption] The U.S. has a long history of political resistance to the international climate negotiations which has meant that president Obama has had to learn from trial and error. His strategy has not always been successful and at times has been harshly criticized by both Republicans and environmentalists. However, such battles have led Obama to take an alternative route to tackle climate change through a flexible strategy that offers new possibilities to advance the international climate negotiations.
During the 2008 presidential race, Obama made a special commitment to climate and the need to change U.S. policy. The president had an initial chance to show his sincere interest in taking global leadership in the international negotiations at the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009. The world expected Obama to take the lead but he instead furtively met with a group of rapidly emerging economies - China, Brazil, India and South Africa - to draft the Copenhagen Accord through a minilateral exclusive process. Consequently, the summit ended full of distrust and frustration with an agreement falling far short of expectations. In domestic policy, Obama also failed in the attempt to establish the Clean Energy and Security Act, which aimed to implement a carbon market as a national measure to address climate change. The initiative was passed by the House of Representatives but was buried in the Senate in June, 2010. During the rest of his first term, Obama attempted to increase some environmental regulations but the great project promised in the presidential campaign collapsed, both nationally and internationally. During Obama’s second presidential campaign, climate change was conspicuous by its absence. It was the first time that the issue was not mentioned in a U.S. presidential debate in over 20 years. So, it seemed as though climate would not be a priority during his second term. However, following victory in November 2012, Obama ended the 'climate silence' and prepared a new strategy. The U.S.’s ability to lead the international negotiations is very limited given the senate’s tendency to either threaten to block or block internationally binding agreements. Domestic laws also face strong resistance. Thus, Obama chose to avoid this intractable conflict by instead focusing on the role of the Environmental Protection Agency, which can address some important aspects of climate change through stricter regulations in various fields. Obama recently initiated a working group on climate change with China outside the Convention which includes an agreement to phrase out emissions from hydrofluorocarbons. This is an unprecedented agreement between the World’s most polluting countries. Shortly thereafter, the Secretary of State, John Kerry, announced a similar working group with India. Thus, Obama is on track to achieve important advances through bilateral negotiations as an alternative to the continued impasse in the U.S. senate and negotiations under the Convention. Obama still has many unresolved issues in the national and international agenda. One of the issues on which civil society has put considerable pressure has the Keystone XL, an oil pipeline that would run from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. If Obama gives the green light to the construction, this will be seen as a lack of consistency in his commitment to climate change. The issue is still pending, however, recently some documents were revealed in which Canada, aware of the strong civil society pressure against the pipeline, sent a document to the U.S. government offering to increase their level of ambition in the international climate negotiations in exchange for authorizing the construction of Keystone XL. The Canadian administration under Stephen Harper has abandoned the Kyoto Protocol and shown the same reluctance that George W. Bush to engage in the international arena. Although, the Canadian proposal merits consideration, Obama’s risks undermining his own climate strategy and betraying the efforts to resolve the impasse and increase ambition to tackle climate change. Furthermore, it remains to be seen how the possible departure of Heather Zichal, top climate and energy advisor for the White House for the last 5 years will affect Obama’s strategy during the remaining years of his second term. Zichal played an instrumental role in EPA’s new regulations regarding fuel efficiency standards and power plants emissions, as well as coordination among governmental agencies. The news is not official yet, however sources for the Washington Post revealed the situation. Obama has shown interest in tackling climate change. However, he has encountered an impenetrable resistance by lawmakers, especially Republicans. Thus, avoiding an unwinnable confrontation with the senate has been a key part of the strategy. In the international arena, Obama has made greater progress in establishing bilateral agreements. However, these negotiations can have two incompatible results: it has been shown that bilateral and mini-lateral negotiations have strong advantages over multilateral negotiations. It is easier to agree between a small group of countries compared to securing consensus among the Convention’s 193Parties. However, if the minilateral negotiations are successful, Parties could lose faith in the Convention opting to pursue bilateral treaties instead between geopolitically relevant countries which could leave vulnerable countries to the mercy of arbitrary decisions. The nations of the world have sought the cooperation (and leadership) of the U.S. on climate change. But the U.S. has always been reluctant to commit to binding international treaties. Hence, Obama shows an alternative to this conflict. An important lesson for the international community is that Obama’s flexible strategy offers an effective route to avoid intractable conflicts when dealing with the U.S. It is unlikely that the Senate will soften its stance on ratifying any legal commitment. However, at least until 2016, Parties will have the U.S. executive branch to pursue bilateral deals. Can the flexible strategy of the U.S. be trusted? Is it possible to coordinate a broad and flexible strategy in order to create a rigid or hybrid treaty by 2015, according to the deadline established by the outcome in Durban in 2011, in which, on the one hand, national efforts are not reversed by the next American president and, on the other hand, bilateral agreements do not threaten collective multilateral action? Obama shows what the U.S. can offer to help advance progress on tackling climate change. The international community needs to learn to read these actions to avoid misdirecting strategies between the ideal, the possible and impossible, when pursuing the cooperation of the U.S in climate negotiations.