Superpowers desert Obama in fight to save the planet

19th December 2009
Press Release

Superpowers desert Obama in fight to save the planet The charisma and messianic tendencies just weren’t doing it for the president yesterday, writes HARRY McGEE The Irish Times 19th DEcember 2009

THE LAST day was always going to be about an unremitting focus on an extraordinary global phenomenon that has turned our perspective on the planet we live in upside down.

Yes, Obama was in town. From the moment Air Force One touched down at a snow-covered Kastrup airbase outside Copenhagen, the US president’s every move and comment dominated the agenda.

To say his arrival was almost up there with the Second Coming would not be far off the mark, given the anticipation and hype that has surrounded his appearance here on the 12th and final day of the global convention on climate change.

Sadly, by mid-afternoon, his ability to turn water into wine – and a bogged-down and rutted process into a gleaming global accord – seemed to have deserted him.

Even his strongest admirers in a very large American press corps were expressing doubt about any rabbits being pulled from hats.

Given the oppressive and pervasive nature of the security that surrounded his predecessor George W Bush, the Obama circus seems low-key and casual by comparison. For sure, the security presence around the vast Bella Centre on the outskirts of Copenhagen was heightened – for the first time, helicopters were seen (and heard) hovering overhead all day. And his entourage was, unsurprisingly, enormous. If his security detail weren’t all wearing their little squiggly earpieces, the crowd could have been mistaken for particularly well-heeled environmentalists partaking in one of the frequent symbolic walk-outs we witnessed this week.

Obama’s low-key style was brought home to about 20 of us sitting in a press centre patiently waiting for a press conference to start. A door opened behind us in the hall. We heard a breezy and friendly call: “Hi there, how are you?”

It was the US president passing through on his way to one of his meetings with other world leaders. There were gasps as his party of about 40 passed. He still retains that friendly, laid-back manner – still creating a frisson a year after his election.

But the charisma and messianic tendencies just weren’t doing it yesterday.

There was huge disappointment at what many considered to be a bland and lacklustre speech. There were a couple of good soundbites and one or two of Obama’s trademark oratorical flutters. But the message lacked punch, and, surprisingly, so did the delivery, according to many observers.

The US commitment to a 17 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions does sound impressive until you discover the baseline is 2005, not 1990.

His ultimatum was powerful: the time for talk was over, he said.

“This is the bottom line: we can embrace this accord, take a substantial step forward, continue to refine it and build upon its foundation.

“Or we can choose delay, falling back into the same divisions that have stood in the way of action for years,” he said.

The problem is that the US’s own bottom line is just not enough.

Has the audacity of hope given way to the mundane reality of governing?