Uncle Sam: Superhero?


I’ve just returned from Europe with a new understanding of what the world expects from the United States on global climate change, now that Barack Obama will be president.

In a word: Everything.

I spent two days in Poznan, Poland, at the 14th Conference of the Parties – the gathering of nations now underway to work on a global climate deal scheduled to be signed one year from now in Copenhagen. From there, I went to London for a series of meetings with business and environmental leaders. Because I’ve been involved in proposing a climate action plan for the next president and Congress – one of dozens undoubtedly descending upon the transition team – everyone wanted my take on what President Obama will do.

The weather in Poland was cold and gloomy, the weather in London was cool and foggy, but the mood in both places was sunny in anticipation of U.S. leadership. Obama’s approaching inauguration has filled international climate activists with hope.

But – and this will be good news for the president-elect – I came away with the sense that the world community isn’t expecting Obama to be Captain America, single-handedly preventing a tragic decline in the Earth’s hospitality to our species. The world expects the superhero to be America, the nation. Obama’s election isn’t seen as the anointment of a miracle-worker; it’s seen as a sign that America has returned to its senses, has reasserted its ideals in a way that surprised even us Americans, and has become in the words of one colleague in London, “cool again”.

(At one event in London, I spoke to a gathering of environmental leaders at the historic East India Club, where the walls are adorned with portraits of the United Kingdom’s heroes. As the stern visage of Winston Churchill looked down upon us, I was reminded of something he said that perfectly summarizes the state of climate policy in the United States as Obama takes office: “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”) Continued...