Obama Has Failed the World on Climate Change,” blares a Spiegel op-ed by Christian Schwägerl.  The essay is another data point in the growing notion that the new American president’s aura is fading on the other side of the Atlantic.

[F]ew people expected that Barack Obama, of all people, would continue his predecessor’s climate change plan. When he took office at the beginning of 2009, it was clear that the success of the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen in December depended almost entirely on the US — that America needed to take a clear leadership role on a problem that could shake civilization to its very core.

Only if the US manages to reduce its excessive energy consumption, commit itself to mandatory CO2 emission reduction targets and help finance poorer countries’ move away from oil is there still a chance that countries like China and India will do the same and that a dangerous warming of the Earth can be stopped. On the weekend, Obama announced that there would be no agreement on binding rules in Copenhagen. It was the admission of a massive failing — and the prelude to a truly dramatic phase of international climate policy.

Barack Obama cast himself as a “citizen of the world” when he delivered his well-received campaign speech in Berlin in the summer of 2008. But the US president has now betrayed this claim. In his Berlin speech, he was dishonest with Europe. Since then, Obama has neglected the single most important issue for an American president who likes to imagine himself as a world citizen, namely, his country’s addiction to fossil fuels and the risks of unchecked climate change. Health-care reform and other domestic issues were more important to him than global environmental threats. He was either unwilling or unable to convince skeptics in his own ranks and potential defectors from the ranks of the Republicans to support him, for example, by promising alternative investments as a compensation for states with large coal reserves.

American conservatives are reveling in a bit of Schadenfreude over the bursting of this bubble.

None of this should surprise anyone, however.  Obama faced outsized expectations — largely of his own creation, admittedly — that were simply never going to be realized.  Yes, as Bruce McQuain points out, there is “rampant anti-Americanism” in Europe that wasn’t going to go away simply because the new guy was less confrontational.

More importantly, however, despite shared core values, the United States and its European allies have very different political agendas. As I wrote just over a year ago,

I’m less sanguine than my boss on a rapid improvement in the U.S. relationship with our European allies.  While I agree that a fresh start is helpful given where we are now and that Obama’s temperament is more soothing than Bush’s, I tend to agree with Paul Heutching that, “Obama is an American politician, and he will govern like an American president.”  Likewise, France, Germany, the UK, and the rest of our European cousins will continue to pursue their own agendas.

Now, Obama’s personal ideology on climate change and other environmental issues is much closer to that of the European leaders than was his predecessor’s.  But there’s simply no way that Obama is going to swim upstream on this one in the midst of two shooting wars, a global recession, and a major fight to reform the healthcare system. 

Indeed, Bob Manning predicted as much last December in this space.

As for the U.S., though President-Elect Obama displays a good understanding of the climate issue, its urgency and is surrounded by greener-than-thous advisors and has developed ideas to address it, it is difficult to see Congress passing such legislation in the midst of a recession that  is expected to last through 2009 and perhaps beyond.  Just as energy prices have started to drop sharply to $40 a barrel, how to you tell Joe the Plumber that his gas and electric bills will have to be increased by 20 percent to meet climate targets?

Obama is a cautious, pragmatic politician.  This is a fight he can’t win.  He’ll therefore avoid entering the ring.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.


Related Experts: James Joyner