The inability to win agreement to make firm cuts in greenhouse gas emissions remains the biggest impediment at the current round of global warming talks. The United States is part of that blockade, arguing that if the developing nations don’t join in then this country would be economically disadvantaged.

That’s long been the U.S. position. But it has not been the traditional position of President Obama. In the first leg of his presidency, he helped lead the fight to enact a cap-and-trade system as the primary means to get businesses to reduce their carbon emissions. That idea passed one chamber of Congress but gradually died as the country’s economic situation worsened and as Capitol Hill’s political composition changed.

The general position of the United States is that a voluntary effort is the best short-run course to take. That’s what the U.S. envoy to the United Nation’s Climate talks in Durban, South Africa Todd Stern is saying. At the last round of negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, the participants said that this would have to do until 2020.

Environmental critics here and abroad note that such a view has at least one critical  scientific shortcoming and contains at least one political round-about: Scientifically, such groups as the National Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund are saying that the experts are warning that this tactic falls short of what will be required to avert potential disaster.

“Three years later, America risks being viewed not as a global leader on climate change, but as a major obstacle to progress,” 16 such groups said in a letter.

That’s why the European Union is pressuring the United States, which emits 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, to sign a binding agreement to make specific carbon reductions and to do so by 2015. President Obama won’t do it. When things were humming along, he was all for environmental progress but has since pulled back because of the economic lag and the political realities.

Falls Short

The objective now among like-minded thinkers is that global temperatures must be limited to increases of no more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. That would require an 80 percent cut in carbon emissions from where they now stand. The United Nations has said that greenhouse gases must be curbed by 3 percent annually if that is to be achieved.

“Those who seem to think that it is enough for current pledges to stay as they are up to 2020 seem to be overlooking those facts,” says Artur Runge-Metzger, chief negotiator for the EU in a story that appeared in the UK Telegraph. Voluntary cuts do about half the job necessary, he says.

U.S. reticence is causing others to back away from joining a second global pact that follows in Kyoto’s footsteps. That includes the EU, although because it has led by example, it is unlikely to surrender so quickly. But Russia, Japan and Canada are less eager to commit to hard cuts, although each is making strides.

As for China, its position is not new. It is trying to achieve much better living standards for its citizens and that requires the use of more energy. Basically, it wants to keep its economy growing in the 7-10 percent a year range. But it is also attempting to manage that by enacting renewable and efficiency programs.

One of the sticking points to advancing a global pact is how richer nations would assist poorer ones in cutting their emission levels. Last year during a summit in Cancun, Mexico, leaders established a $100 billion climate fund that will get additional funding over a decade. That money will also come from vendors that sell clean technologies.

While President Obama is doing what is politically practical, his critics are complaining that his “newfound” approach falls short. That course, however, is unlikely to change until a groundswell of support elevates the cause. Therein lay the conflict, pitting those with a sense of urgency against those concerned about any added economic hardship.

EnergyBiz Insider is the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has also been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.

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