One effect of the new Obama administration's global charm is that America could be let out of the environmental doghouse. The Obama plan to restart the economy is stuffed full of green incentives, and the new president has earned global cheers for his promise to cut the gases that cause global warming. But hope and change are not easy to implement in Washington, and the first big disappointment is likely to come later this year when the world's governments gather in Copenhagen to replace the aging and ineffective Kyoto treaty.
Pundits have been talking down the Copenhagen summit on the theory that the current financial crisis makes 2009 a tough time for governments to focus on costly and distant global goals like protecting the planet. In reality, the greenish tinge on nearly every economic recovery plan, even China's, show that this crisis offers green opportunity. The real reason Copenhagen will be a disappointment is that the new Obama administration can't lead until it first learns what it can actually implement at home. And delivering greenery in the American political system is harder than it looks--even when the same left-leaning party controls both the White House and Congress.
On environmental issues, America is barely a nation. Under a single flag it uneasily accommodates a host of states pushing greenery at wildly different speeds. In the 1970s and 1980s, this multispeed environmentalism propelled America to a leadership position. The key was truly bipartisan legislation, which allowed Washington to craft a coherent national approach.