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U.S. Punts on Climate Change Action, Again

The Exchange

The Doha Climate Change Conference wrapped up this week. You'd be forgiven if you missed it as, by all accounts, it seems to have been a lesson in futility.

"The Doha caravan seems to be lost in the sand," said Ronald Jumeau, the representative of the Seychelles to the United Nations, according to the BBC earlier this week. "As far as ambition is concerned, we are lost."

The leadup to the conference should have made "getting lost" impossible.  Hurricane Sandy wreaked tens of billions of dollars worth of damage on the U.S. east coast in late October. That thrust the issue of climate change into the presidential campaign, as New York City ground to a halt and the Jersey Shore was decimated. The governors of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut are now asking for federal relief aid to the tune of $82 billion.

But climate change's time in the limelight following Sandy lasted only days. By mid-November, President Obama readily acknowledged the political reality that tackling the issues that environmentalists believe are supercharging storms is secondary to the economy.

"There's no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices," said the president. "And understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused, and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth, that if the message is somehow we're going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don't think anybody is going to go for that.  I won't go for that."

Still, as Doha kicked off, environmental groups were prepared with a lineup of grim studies on just how far the world has fallen short on its environmental efforts. A study from the Global Carbon Project found that global carbon dioxide emissions hit a record high in 2011 and show no signs of slowing.

"Yet nations around the world, despite a formal treaty pledging to limit warming -- and 20 years of negotiations aimed at putting it into effect -- have shown little appetite for the kinds of controls required to accomplish those stated aims," the New York Times wrote. The Times went on to note that there were no new emissions targets up for discussion at Doha.

Oil Change International followed with a report showing that the world's largest industrialized countries spend considerably more on fossil-fuel subsidies than on climate change aid. According to the report, 22 of the wealthiest nations offered the oil, coal and gas industries some $58.7 billion in subsidies in 2011, compared with $11.2 billion to climate aid. The U.S., at $13.1 billion, was the top subsidizer of fossil fuel industries.

Three years ago, the U.S. took the lead among the world's wealthiest countries in pledging to provide $100 billion in climate aid by 2020. So far $30 billion has been delivered. Brazil, China and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pressed for details on the plans for the remaining $70 billion in aid during the conference, but no commitments were made.

"The question of whether there's a new commitment that gets announced here isn't the right question," said Jonathan Pershing, the U.S. negotiator, according to Bloomberg. However, he added that if asked whether the world's biggest economy is working on a plan, "the answer is yes."

The United Kingdom was the only developed nation to pledge an additional $2.9 billion for aid beginning in 2013.