Ashton: Help Obama sidestep Congress and sign UN climate deal

By John Parnell

World governments should help President Obama to circumvent domestic opposition to a global, binding deal on climate change, the UK’s former climate change ambassador has said.

John Ashton warned that US attempts to build support for the new 2015 UN climate treaty to be voluntary must be resisted. Instead diplomatic efforts should be made to “creatively” include the country in a legal agreement.

“Obama has made it clear this is a top priority. It’s a legacy issue. He has a Secretary of State in John Kerry who has been as committed to climate change as any other senior politician in the world for a very long time. There is absolutely no doubting the personal intent and the personal integrity of President Obama and Secretary Kerry,” said Ashton.

“But they have a problem, a real problem, the US congress.”

Ashton said attempts to bring the UN climate treaty down to the level of what is acceptable in Washington should be resisted (Source: Flickr/JColman)

Governments are currently aiming to have a universal treaty on emission reductions, applicable to rich and poor nations, in place by 2015 and enforced from 2020 onwards.

Ashton said the current US solution was to push for a voluntary, lowest common denominator global deal based on the limits of what Obama could push through back home.

“This is what my friend and colleague Tom Burke calls a New Washington Consensus on climate change. That approach can’t work. We can’t achieve consensus on that basis. That was the lesson of [the failed UN talks in] Copenhagen.

“It’s really important if there is an effort to impose that New Washington Consensus, that it fails.”


The alternative, Ashton claims, is for the USA to acknowledge the limitations placed on it domestically and to appeal for a workaround.

“If the US said that, I think a lot of people would be sympathetic and would use a lot of imagination to try and find a creative solution. In effect, to treat the US as if it was legally bound even if the Senate did not make it so.”

Climate change represents a number of more ideological issues in the US that hold back acceptance of the near scientific consensus.

Ashton was giving the annual lecture at the SOAS Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, the first time the lecture has turned its attention to climate change. He is also a Professorial Research Associate at the Centre.

He urged the audience not to accept the suggestion that it is too late to act, a recurring theme in the speech. In particular he pointed to the pivotal stage that the UN negotiations have reached.

“Anyone who tells you with certainty that the UNFCCC process is going nowhere, either wants it to go nowhere, or they don’t know what they are talking about,” he said.

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