Top UN Climate Official Blasts U.S. Climate Policy: Americans Must Realize “This Is Their Future They’re Compromising” — Christiana Figueres, the top United Nations diplomat tasked with managing the international climate negotiations process, is blasting the U.S. for its inability to act on climate change.

Speaking to Climate Progress at the UN’s COP 17 climate conference in Durban, South Africa, Figueres called American climate policy “hamstrung” and lamented the lack of urgency in the country:

The U.S. is hamstrung. And I wonder how long it’s going to take the U.S. civil society … to realize that climate change is affecting them directly – it’s not just affecting somebody else. I really think the … U.S. population needs to understand that this is not just their historical responsibility, but this is their future that they’re compromising. And when that awareness is raised, then I think the government will make more ambitious decisions. I think there’s no public pressure in the United States to take any more ambitious decision.”

Figueres is certainly right that inaction on climate will compromise the future health and well-being of Americans (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“).

Figueres, who says she’s optimistic about the ability of parties (including the U.S.) to agree on a framework for key initiatives like the $100 billion Green Fund, is decidedly less positive about the American position coming into the talks. U.S. negotiators are being criticized for reacting coolly to the prospects for negotiations over a binding treaty with developing countries. American Environmental groups wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the lead up to COP, saying the U.S. “threatened to impede … global cooperation.”

Figueres expressed the same sentiment, but in a much less direct way.  As you can see in the video of the interview, when asked by Climate Progress about her thoughts on the U.S. position coming into this year’s climate talks, she paused, seemingly to make her response as diplomatic as possible:

Some people believe the U.S. is working a negotiating stance, and will eventually open up to aggressive, binding commitments with developing countries as the week progresses. When asked about that, Figueres responded: “That’s for the U.S. to decide.”

Figueres did tell Climate Progress she expects the approval of the Green Climate Fund, the approval of a technology-transfer mechanism, and is pushing very hard to create a second commitment period under the Kyoto protocol. Aside from Kyoto, which the U.S. is not a part of, America’s Special Climate for Climate Change Todd Stern says he expects to “make significant progress” on those issues at this week’s conference.

Related Post:

21 Responses to Top UN Climate Official Blasts U.S. Climate Policy: Americans Must Realize “This Is Their Future They’re Compromising”

  1. Peter Mizla says:

    As long as the GOP control congress- with some Blue Dog Democrats who live in the year 1000, in their ability to understand science or this same group of troglodytes begin to develop ethics and disregard their personal greed- the American public will be in a state of inertia- when total disaster ensues

    they can only blame themselves.

  2. Buzz Belleville says:

    I think we need a paradigm shift. We need to stop working for a post-Kyoto emission reduction treaty because it’s absolutely not going to happen in the next 5+ years. And we need to stop working for a comprehensive 2000-page cap-and-trade bill a la Waxman-Markey because it’s absolutely not going to happen in the next 5+ years. Instead, internationally, those nations that have adopted a policy that puts a price on carbon need to begin imposing tariffs on imports from nations (like China and the U.S.) that don’t do so. See The Obama administration (if it’s serious about addressing climate change) could even support this in backdoor meetings, as that would bring political pressure to bear on domestic U.S. policy. While cap-and-trade has become synonymous with big government and has no chance of passing in the near future, a revenue-neutral carbon tax could be supported by climate change activists and conservatives alike. See

    Whatever has been happening so far in post-Kyoto negotiations and in domestic policy initiatives isn’t working. Let’s try something new.

  3. M Tucker says:

    Madam we are Americans and well known for doing and saying very stupid things. Just ask Senators Inhofe or Kyl. Have you ever seen Rebel Without a Cause?…we love to play chicken. I am sure you are familiar with our mutually assured destruction stance from the past…well, here we go again.

  4. Jeff Huggins says:

    “Hamstrung” Explained

    One of the reasons that we’re so hamstrung, of course, is the “vote for the lesser of two evils” paradigm that most people have adopted, including many folks here, and the implications of that paradigm when combined with the largely two-party system we have, and the ways of most politicians.

    Another related reason has to do with the fact that most of our “think tanks” and “cause organizations”, including CAP, cannot bring themselves, ultimately, to any genuine independence from any allegiance to one party or another, when push comes to shove. For a range of reasons — including tax law, funding, revolving doors between the organizations and a party’s leaders, access, and others — such organizations are implicitly in bed with one or the other of the main (two) political parties.

    Lawrence O’Donnell has pointed out that in his experience (and he was involved in government as a Democrat), leaders can and do ignore or discount the views of their bases — they take their bases for granted — because of the assumption that such groups have no other choice and will, ultimately, vote for them.

    Thus, one of the main reasons why the U.S. is hamstrung should be very apparent to us: right in front of our noses. No matter how ineffective the present Administration has been, or is being; and no matter how ineffective the Dems have been, or are being; and even if only vague ideals and words are being offered about what they’ll do if elected again; and even in light of enormous gaps and contradictions between what was promised last time around, and what was actually delivered, or even attempted; and even in light of what folks like Lawrence O’Donnell say about how most political leaders think; the implied, if not explicit (although often explicit), stance on the part of so many of the movement’s leaders and thinkers (Bill M. and Joe R. and others included) is or seems to be that the only realistic thing to do is to vote Democrat, again, and thus to trust in “hope” again? Yikes.

    ‘Hamstrung’ is a very good word, because it implies “tied up”, at least partly by oneself.

    In my view, we would do well to separate, more than we do, the notion of “aims”, the realities of time-frames (we don’t have forever), and the ideas of “will” and “way”. There is limited time. We are suffering from problems of “will” more than from problems of “way”. The Administration, apparently, does not have sufficient “will” to take action — including many actions that ARE available to it and that aren’t precluded by the situation. Meanwhile, many of the movement’s leaders and leading organizations lack the “will”, it seems, to show any independence from the Democrat party when it comes to what ultimately counts: votes. Meanwhile, political leaders take their “bases” for granted, for the reasons mentioned, and indeed our own actions have taught them to do so. This all leads to hamstrung-ness. Need I explain more? The basic pattern — a breakable pattern, but one that we repeatedly choose not to break — is actually much easier to see and understand than it is to understand how and why greenhouse gases absorb energy and warm the atmosphere. We seem to be clear-eyed scientifically, yet politically short-sighted, unwisely biased, and habituated.

    In any case, we should embark on an analysis of what it is that has us “hamstrung” — an analysis that doesn’t overlook our own political choices, paradigms, unexamined assumptions, and present stances — an analysis that even Socrates might assign at least a ‘B’ to, if not an ‘A’, but certainly more than the ‘D’ that we presently deserve. Might it be possible that the hamstrung-ness of the U.S. is partly, and not just slightly, due to the fact that U.S. environmental organizations, humanitarian organizations, climate organizations, progressive organizations, and related others have tied our own hands, needlessly so?

    It may well be the case that we won’t get sufficiently un-hamstrung until we untie ourselves.

    Be Well,


  5. dick smith says:

    Buzz, thanks for the Richmond Times op ed. We’re in heated agreement.

    It’s time for major environmental groups to hold a unity party around a simple message: “Tax Carbon”. If environmental groups can’t get their act together, how can we expect Congress and the president to do what’s obviously necessary.

  6. Wes Rolley says:

    I agree with Jeff here. It is time to force political parties to pay attention to something besides polling numbers and cash collections. One of my own contributions deals with polls by lying half on 50% of the answers to their questions.

    Another contribution is to support Dr. Jill Stein, a candidate for the Green Party nomination for POTUS. Stein released the following statement today regarding the failures in Durban.

    From that, I extract the following:

    “Global warming is already having a serious impact on the United States and the rest of the world. The year 2011 has been a year of extreme weather events marked by record rainfall and flooding, forest fires, and deadly tornadoes, and severe hurricane activity. These events have taken a huge toll on the lives and livelihoods of many thousands of U.S. residents. The global picture is one of growing climate instability and ever rising emissions. Yet the developed countries have made it clear that a new global agreement will not be in effect until 2020 at the earliest. U.S. leadership is desperately needed to galvanize a new world treaty to rescue the climate and our future economy that depends on it.”

    Since the disastrous UN climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, the White House has worked to undermine the chances of a rules-based global agreement along the lines of the Kyoto Protocol. The Administration’s support for ineffective voluntary commitments to reduce emissions in the form of a so-called “pledge and review” system has brought the UN process to the brink of collapse, as other major emitters have followed the U.S. and lowered their own already inadequate emissions reductions targets. “This isn’t leadership” said Stein. “It’s an abdication of responsibility to the future that we can no longer tolerate.”</blockquote

    At least one candidate is on our side.

  7. Roger Shamel says:

    Thanks for your comment, and your piece elaborating on international law regarding what you suggest. I’d heard another opinion from a foreign diplomat who’d said it would be illegal to impose any economic sanctions.

    I agree that we need some mechaniasm to get American voters to a point where they will support the steps that are needed to get ourselves on a track that will save us from hell and high water.

    Tied in with your suggestion, or as an alternative, getting Obama to see that he could assure his re-election in 2012 by using climate change as a lever against GOP candidates (instead of ignoring the issue)might also work. By ‘coming clean’ on the reality of manmade climate change, and explaining the opportunities involved in transitioning to renewables, Obama could create a win-win situation.

    On the other hand, the fear that Pandora’s Box might accidentally be openned when climate is addressed by the president seems to perpetuate a decades-long game of musical chairs, hoping that the music will keep playing until the next administration.

    The only trouble is, we seem to be quickly approaching the time when the music will stop.

  8. Roger Shamel says:

    Jeff (and Wes),
    Good points. Bottom line, let’s do something to encourage President Obama to take on climate change the way that a leader should. Climate change should be a campaign issue in 2012–just the way that Bill M.’s StepItUp folks made it one in ’08. Go Jill!

  9. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Jeff – getting ‘hamstrung’ was a battle injury from cavalry engagements with foot-soldiers – who’d cut the horses’ hamstring if they could,
    (the tendon from the ankle by which a pig’s ham is hung up)
    which would disable the horse and thus unhorse the rider, greatly raising his vulnerability. V grisly.

    To say that climate activists and NGOs are hamstrung by deference to the democrat party is plainly true, but it need not be so.

    First, the state department’s observation over the last 20 years that the longer the US plays a ‘brinkmanship of inaction’ the more climate destabilization will weaken China’s resolve – could be exposed as a genocidally callous – and deeply reckless – strategy of American nationalism. Once exposed, it would be morally indefensible and thus, after a face-saving pause, subject to review.

    Second, the option of putting up a viable candidate as a primary challenge to Obama is not only available,
    and desireable as a platform to insert climate into the election campaign,
    it may also be the most reliable means of getting a democrat president –

    With the global economic outlook dire and the DOE forecasting conditions for an oil-price spike in 2012, and also his base knowing they’re still being pissed on without compunction, just what are Obama’s chances of a second term ? The absurdly poor quality of the brazen aplogia that democrat shills are trying to promote rather affirms their own loss of confidence in his prospects.

    All the best,


  10. Charles says:

    I feel for her. She has worked damn hard and is stuck with sheer intransigence on the part of the big powers. The disappointment and regret written all over her face speaks volumes. I find it almost painful to watch her in the various videos that are coming out from Durban.

    What will she say to the youth with whom she spoke last year?

  11. Robert says:

    put a tariff on us and watch how fast we blast you away. War would be completely justified. Knock these countries off of the map. THAT will reduce some carbon, don’t you think?

  12. Robert says:

    hey M. Tucker. Mutual Assured Destruction SAVED you more than once through the 50’s and 60’s. Educate yourself. if not for that policy, Russia would have attacked us 10 times over.

  13. Robert says:

    I find it painful to watch her, too. She needs to go away.

  14. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    How many Naders will it take for the Green Party to understand that it has to win political office from the bottom up – from local councils to senate minorities – before attempts at the presidency can be other than counter-productive empty gestures ?

    Perhaps I should add that I write as a strong supporter of green policies’ implementation.



  15. otter17 says:

    >> “I really think the … U.S. population needs to understand that this is not just their historical responsibility, but this is their future that they’re compromising. And when that awareness is raised, then I think the government will make more ambitious decisions. I think there’s no public pressure in the United States to take any more ambitious decision.”

    We are up against a lot of disinformation in the USA, but those of us in the know need to get out there to reach out to the folks that are confused by the perception of a debate within the scientific community. The hardcore deniers are likely a lost cause until they are overwhelmed by the masses.

    This quote has inspired me to work harder to get more people involved. I have been making a few signs that say “Ask me about climate change” and “Talk about climate change” with cardboard and a marker. I have a sign in my home window, my office space, and also a sign that I have taken with me to public spaces to talk with people. Not a lot of people want to chit chat, but a lot of people do look at the sign (and I hope it puts the idea in their head).

    Anyway, I have a vision to have a group of volunteers that are committed to continuous advocacy that is widely distributed across the USA, heck maybe the world, until we get a peak in CO2 emissions. Likely get a website to connect volunteers together for ideas, keep track of volunteer actions, maybe even make it a fun contest to contact and recruit the most people. Maybe integrate with I think the “action days” are great and all, but this is something that needs continuous action and support from the majority.

  16. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    This on Durban from the BBC environment correspondent, Richard Black:

    “Behind the scenes, ministers and their teams began to step up diplomatic activity in a series of multilateral and bilateral meetings.

    The head of China’s delegation, Xie Zhenhua, says a legally binding climate agreement is needed.

    Many delegates are particularly keen to discover how far and how fast China is prepared to go towards a future legally-binding agreement to drive emissions down.

    It is widely believed that China holds the key to whether the talks end with a breakthrough or a breakdown.

    Many developing countries are also angered by the hard line being taken by the Indian delegation, which is holding to the line that only the traditional “developed” countries should have to engage in binding restrictions, despite the fact that some countries in the “developing world” bloc now have higher per-capita emissions and incomes.

    Some African nations and small island states are keen to tell the Indian government that it risks isolating itself from the rest of the developing world bloc here.

    There is also generalised frustration with the US. Despite President Obama’s pledge three years ago to “lead the world” on climate change, many sources indicate that behind the scenes, his officials are blocking whatever measures they can.”

    – While China and India appear to have advanced their engagement by swapping their ‘good cop/bad cop’ roles, the final para on US obstruction is very telling. It indicates that the USA, under Obama, does not want any agreement of a binding global treaty. “. . .his officials are blocking whatever measures they can.”

    The honesty of that para is affirmed by the fact that the BBC is pretty staunchly pro-USA and has been brazenly dismissive of the climate issue since Copenhagen.



  17. otter17 says:

    If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

  18. rum says:

    ah yes, the arguement has shifted to climate disruption. what happened to warming anyway? btw, what is the answer of the month for an increase in ghg’s and a leveling of temps? how about the new sea level scandal? you guys are pretty tough breed tho. never really give up. wish we had honest people looking at a potential problem. then maybe we could get real answers.

  19. Raul M. says:

    I think what you say makes sense. We need our local leaders to lead. It means that they and we need to have a realistic look at short term and long term weather forecasts (hence climate).

  20. Buzz Belleville says:

    Robert — Sanctions illegal, yes. Tariffs though would be fine under GATT so long as the country is treating imported goods the same as they’re treating domestic goods.

    I think Obama made the political calculation a couple years ago that the current position of the pendulum doesn’t allow him, politically, to speak of the issue of climate change as he wants to. Maybe he doesn’t care. But he’s a smart dude, and I think he must get it. I am holding out hope like so many of us are that, if re-elected and without the need to keep campaigning, he will in his second term spend some political capital on the issue.

  21. John McCormick says:

    Oh oh. A neo-con just joined in. Like the guy suggested: he needs go away.