Unlike George W Bush Jr, the new President of the USA seems to be serious about the climate change crisis. There is a buzz of intense diplomatic activity across the world.
Mr. Barack Obama's chief climate negotiator, Todd Stern, said last week that the United States would be involved in the negotiation of a new treaty — to be signed in Copenhagen in December — "in a robust way."
That treaty, officials and climate experts involved in the negotiations say, will significantly differ from the agreement of a decade ago, reaching beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions and including financial mechanisms and making good on longstanding promises to provide money and technical assistance to help developing countries cope with climate change.
This week the United Nation's top climate official, Yvo de Boer, will make the rounds in Washington to discuss climate issues. The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, is organizing a high-level meeting on climate and energy. Teams from Britain and Denmark have visited the White House to discuss climate issues. In China, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made climate a central focus of her visit and proposed a partnership between the United States and China. And a special envoy from China will be visiting the US soon.
The Kyoto Protocol has been a touchstone of the environmental movement. Thirty-seven developed countries, including Japan, Australia and nations in the European Union, ratified the accord, agreeing to reduce or limit the growth of carbon dioxide emissions by specified amounts. President George W. Bush, pressed by the Senate, rejected the accord, because countries like China were not also subject to mandatory emission levels. China and India also refused to ratify the protocol.
The new administration has said that it will push through federal legislation this year to curb carbon dioxide emissions in the United States — a promise that Mr. Obama reiterated Tuesday in his speech to Congress.
Environmentalists also want Mr.Obama to commit himself to trying to limit warming to two degrees centigrade above pre-industrial temperatures, an ambitious goal that the European Union has adopted but that the Bush administration steadfastly avoided.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that humans could largely adapt to two degrees of warming, but that a greater temperature increase could cause far more serious consequences, from a dangerous rise in sea levels to mass extinctions.
But for the world to move forward on the climate change front, the US has to take the lead. As Bill McKibben, a noted environmentalist remarked, "The lesson of Kyoto is that if the U.S. isn't taking it seriously there is no reason for anyone else to," said.
The 1997 protocol itself was a narrow accord about the emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gasses linked to global warming.
The new agreement will need to address how those reductions can be achieved in a way that takes account of their effects on energy supplies and economies — especially at a time of global recession.
The current recession could indeed prove a double-edged sword. On the one hand, greenhouse gas emissions will decline, as manufacturing and other polluting industries shrink. On the other, pressure could be off countries to take action. Besides in times of such difficulties, where is the money to invest in alternative but possibly costlier technologies?
Questions awaiting the youthful President who has vowed to take the rest of the world along in his endeavours.