IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Obama's success at climate summit puts world on a new path

A year ago, after the 2014 midterms, pundits said the Obama presidency was effectively over, and 2015 would offer few accomplishments. Yeah, about that....
President Barack Obama speaks about the Paris climate agreement from the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Dec. 12, 2015. (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
President Barack Obama speaks about the Paris climate agreement from the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Dec. 12, 2015. 
Success at the international climate talks in Paris -- the COP21 conference -- was by no means assured. Indeed, the negotiations began with the largest gathering of international heads of state in the history of the world, each with their own priorities and interests, which was followed by intensive negotiations, years in the making.

The first-ever international accord, agreed to by nearly 200 nations, requires all countries to take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Leaders burst into cheers after it was passed, many hugging each other with tears in their eyes. The "Paris agreement" also aims to keep the rise in global temperatures "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial times to the end of this century and "endeavor to limit" them even further, to 1.5 degrees Celsius. To achieve that goal, the world has to stop emitting greenhouse gases altogether in the next half-century, according to scientists. And they must commit to limiting the amount of greenhouse gas pollution from human activity to the same levels that trees, soil and oceans are naturally able to absorb before then.

Secretary of State John Kerry cheered the agreement, calling the deal a "smart, responsible path forward," and the "strongest, most ambitious global climate agreement ever negotiated." President Obama touted the successful negotiations in a brief national address on Saturday night.
To be sure, this is a breakthrough worthy of celebration. But it's also wise to temper some of the excitement and recognize that this is a historic step in the right direction, but it's not a resolution to the crisis. The New Republic's Rebecca Leber, who closely followed the Paris talks, said of the agreement, "The world is a little less doomed now."
Vox's Brad Plumer added that the deal is intended to "add structure and momentum to efforts that are currently underway around the world to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions." The new agreement provides "a set of diplomatic tools to prod countries into cutting emissions even more deeply over time," while adding "transparency measures to verify that nations are actually restraining their emissions" and requiring "that countries reconvene every five years to reconsider the ambition level of their pledges."
This is all very encouraging, but anyone dusting off their hands and hanging a "Mission Accomplished" banner is missing the point: there's an enormous amount of hard work ahead.
Stepping back, however, when President Obama cheered the framework, we were reminded anew about the scope of his accomplishments.
The New York Times, for example, reported over the weekend that the Paris agreement "represents a legacy-shaping success, destined to join his health care law in the annals of his most lasting achievements."

The deal, reached after two weeks of intensive negotiating by world leaders and top diplomats, is a vindication of Mr. Obama's decision to make tackling climate change a centerpiece of his second term. As the economy improved and Mr. Obama was able to focus on other priorities, he invested substantial time, energy and political capital on forging a pact that he has described as a moral imperative.

And now, those investments of political capital appear to have paid off nicely.
The issue of Obama's legacy will come into sharper focus in the months and years to come, but The Atlantic's James Fallows noted over the weekend "three big things that have happened during his presidency that in all probability would not have happened without him":

* The climate deal itself, as explained in a NYT piece just now, and in unbelievable contrast to the utter collapse of the Copenhagen negotiations early in Obama's term; * The rapprochement with Cuba, marking the beginning of the end of the single stupidest (but hardest to change) aberration in modern U.S. foreign policy; and * The international agreement with Iran, which in the short term offers (as I have argued at length) the best prospects for keeping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and in the long run has the potential of beginning to end Iran's destructive estrangement from the international order.

These are three history-book-worthy accomplishments in foreign policy, each of which could have very easily fallen apart, but I'd add one detail Fallows didn't mention: the climate deal, the overhaul of U.S. policy with Cuba, and the international agreement with Iran all happened over the last 12 months.
That's no small detail. After the 2014 midterm elections, much of the Beltway media decided President Obama was an irrelevant lame-duck who would accomplish nothing in his final two years. Obama would hold the office, but he could forget about advancing his agenda. The president's days of adding to his legacy, the pundits agreed, were over.
And we now know those observers were spectacularly wrong.
Since Election Day 2014, Obama has racked up wins on climate, Iran's nuclear program, Cuba, trade-promotion authority, a breakthrough immigration policy, overtime pay, net neutrality, and even the freeing of some American prisoners in North Korea. If we add the Supreme Court to the mix, the president also scored key legal victories on marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act.
For some presidents, that's the sort of list that might represent an entire term. For Obama, that's just the last year -- a year in which Congress did very little in the way of meaningful work, and a year in which the president was supposed to sit in the Oval Office, twiddling his thumbs, waiting for time to elapse.
To his credit, and our benefit, Obama has flipped the lame-duck narrative on its head.