Slate writer and meteorologist Eric Holthaus argues that, given his political constraints, President Obama has been largely successful in getting the ball rolling on dealing with climate change, even though there's a long, long way to go.
On Wednesday, as the president spoke in the Florida swamp, diplomats were gathering in Bangkok to discuss a possible global deal to phase out hydroflorocarbons (HFCs), one of the fastest growing contributors to climate change. This deal wouldn’t be possible without help from the Obama administration.
HFCs, which are used primarily as refrigerants in air conditioning, were phased in as a replacement for CFCs in the 1980s and 1990s in an attempt to stop the growth of the hole in the ozone layer. Since then, they’ve become a big problem in and of themselves—even though viable alternatives are readily available.
A pound of HFCs has up to 14,000 times the global warming potential as a pound of carbon dioxide. U.S. emissions of HFCs are the largest of any country in the world,and they’re rising—but they’re soon to get dwarfed by demand for cooling in places like India as the climate warms and the global middle class of people who can afford air conditioning expands. The proportion of humanity’s total impact on the climate by HFCs is projected to grow rapidly in the coming decades—and could amount to28 to 45 percent of all human-induced global warming by 2050 if the world cracks down on carbon dioxide in the meantime.
So what’s the good news? Air conditioning is a life-and-death issue in India, where its use is projected to grow at a whopping 20 percent per year for the foreseeable future. India had been opposing a transition to HFC alternatives to allow the greatest access to cooling possible. But a big breakthrough on HFCs came earlier this month when India unexpectedly submitted a plan for their global phase-out using the existing Montreal Protocol—the same treaty used to phase out CFCs decades ago. Lead U.S. climate diplomat Todd Stern claimed victory, crediting a bilateral meeting between Obama and Indian Prime Minister Modi in January. The U.S. and China had previously agreed to a similar deal on HFCs in 2013, and the Obama administration announced a voluntary deal with American cooling-intensive companies, like Coca-Cola, last fall.
Because the structure of this year’s first-ever global agreement on climate change is also voluntary—with each country effectively trying to peer-pressure others into greater cuts—it matters that the Obama administration is emerging as an effective negotiating force. India hasn’t yet announced its overall economy-wide goal for cutting carbon, but is rumored to be leaving the door open for more significant cuts should wealthier countries agree to fund them.
Considering Republicans refuse to even acknowledge climate change exists still, it's a victory. The alternative is a Republican administration that with either do nothing or in fact make things worse by increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and saying "God will sort it out."
There is a difference between the two parties, and climate change action is definitely one of those differences.