An Idea Whose Time Has Come

It's not just Obama -- the entire world is ready to get serious about climate change. 

Before President Obama vowed to address climate change in his inaugural address, U.S. climate policy was so dead in people's minds that skeptics of global warming had crept, unmolested, into the mainstream. Not only do important Republicans still question the merits of climate science and the wisdom of a U.S. climate policy, but terms like "environmental alarmism" and climate "propaganda" are now apparently part of the centrist vernacular. The recession, one might be tempted to conclude, killed climate policy for good.

But Obama's speech, in which he promised to lead the transition to sustainable energy, was not the first indication that progress can be made on climate policy. While a comprehensive federal response to global warming may yet be out of reach, a number of states and localities are taking action independently -- as is much of the rest of the world. Moreover, the president's nomination of Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) as the next secretary of state elevates a staunch advocate of climate policy at the same time as a growing list of American allies are looking for increased cooperation on that front.

Officials around the globe are exploring the future of sustainability, especially in massive megacities, giving the United States a unique chance to engage. The European Union, Canada, and Australia are moving forward with major carbon-saving initiatives. Even China, is aggressively seeking reductions in carbon and oil imports with mammoth investments in renewable energy, restrictions on car purchases and use, incentives for electric vehicles, and even pilot carbon trading programs.  

In the coming years, then, the United States may well be able to capitalize on these diverse efforts to marshal support for coordinated measures to slow climate change. The trick, as international relations scholar David Victor has noted, may be to limit ambition and start with realistic goals that can build credibility.

The United States should begin by creating international partnerships on low-carbon transport fuels, which have the potential to eliminate 2.6 gigatons of carbon by 2035 through efficiency gains and fuel switching, according to the International Energy Agency. Alternative fuels not only help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they also enhance global energy security and lessen the burden of high oil bills around the world. For these reasons, many countries are converting vehicles to run on natural gas, while many others are beginning to invest in electric vehicles, biofuels, and even hydrogen fuel cell technology. Countries with important vehicle-exporting industries -- including Japan, China, the European Union, and Brazil -- are taking an especially strong interest in alternatives to petroleum.

Given this nearly-universal interest in alternative fuels, it may be possible to agree on global testing protocols for vehicle efficiency and life-cycle -- steps that would go a long way toward creating global performance standards. The United States could further advance global dialogue by addressing low-hanging fruit such as methane flaring, land use, and deforestation -- starting within its own borders. By starting small and sidestepping controversial issues like universal carbon caps, the United States might find that significant progress is within reach.

The fact that the United States is embarking on an oil and gas renaissance should not hamper such efforts. Australia, for example, adopted rigorous climate change policies despite a recent natural gas boom of its own. It instituted a carbon tax that applies to oil and gas development, and is now phasing in a cap-and-trade system that will link up to the European Union and perhaps California, which itself launched a cap-and-trade program in 2012. Canada, the world's 5th-largest energy producer, also passed laws to phase out coal plants and institute a carbon tax in both British Columbia and Alberta; Quebec is launching a cap and trade program that links with California.

Nor should the patchwork nature of these initiatives be taken as an argument against U.S. participation. The future of greenhouse gas diplomacy will inevitably rest with an amalgamation of governments, non-governmental organizations, and private actors responding to both emerging technology opportunities and public sentiment. Already, major oil companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell are taking concrete steps at introducing carbon management targets and practices, and most are quietly factoring in the future price of carbon in their long-range strategic planning. Investor Warren Buffet, who previously bought oil and gas pipelines and railroads, just placed a $2.5 billion bet on solar energy.

Even companies investing in the controversial Canadian oil sands are working to reduce emissions by improving energy efficiency, using low-carbon fuels for processing and transport, and even capturing and sequestering carbon. In our private discussions with oil executives, virtually all have acknowledged that climate policies -- such as cap and trade and California's low-carbon fuel standard -- are inevitable in the long run. In some cases, such policies could benefit the companies themselves, even beyond energy efficiency savings. As, a website dedicated to aligning capital market and climate change objectives, has rightly pointed out, mining and resource companies that book long-range reserves often have assets on their balance sheets that will never be commercialized, meaning that their shares are overvalued. These companies, which make investment decisions on a 20-year time horizon, will become increasingly eager to formalize climate policies to reduce risk and uncertainty and maintain value for shareholders.

The prospect of environmental activists and policymakers blocking -- or even delaying -- multi-billion-dollar investments in Arctic or other complex pre-salt deep sea resources that might take 15-plus years to bring on line could be disastrous for these companies. Should tighter restrictions on carbon be instituted in the next two decades, returns might be higher on investments in low-carbon natural gas and other cleaner alternatives. Shell's current predicament is a case in point: Should it sink even more dollars into technically and politically troubled offshore exploration in Alaska, or should it focus future spending on unconventional natural gas production and transportation in the lower 48 states?

In January 2012, the chairman of state oil behemoth Saudi Aramco went on record saying, "Greenhouse gas emissions and global warming are among humanity's most pressing concerns. Societal expectations on climate change are real, and our industry is expected to take a leadership role." If the world's oil superpower is willing to accept responsibility, certainly the United States can afford to take a more forward diplomatic stance. By starting with programs that revolve around transportation and standards like those underway in California, the United States might find it can build trust and the will for progress on the global climate change agenda. The Obama administration can leverage emerging successes at the state and local level into a credible global dialogue on climate and transportation policy. That would elevate the standing of the United States to a position of global environmental leadership -- and allow the president to make good on the promise he laid out in his inaugural address.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images


Rainbow Coalition

A gay rights revolution is sweeping across the Americas. It's time for Washington to catch up.

In his second inaugural address, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to make the United States a beacon for the world by recommitting the country to its ideals of equality. He also made history by saying those ideals demand marriage rights for same-sex couples just as they have demanded equal citizenship for women and African Americans.

But even if the Supreme Court or lawmakers soon agree with Obama's words -- "for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well" -- the United States will be a latecomer to advancing marriage rights. The world's leaders on this issue are not just from places Americans might expect -- Western Europe or Canada -- but many countries in our own hemisphere; places not usually known for progressivism on social issues. While Obama was undergoing his "evolution" on marriage rights, there has been a gay rights revolution that has stretched from Tierra del Fuego to the Rio Grande.

One dramatic illustration: When a broad coalition of human-rights activists brought a gay rights charter to the United Nations in 2007, the push was led not by the likes of Sweden or the Netherlands, but by Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. Same-sex marriage was not legal in any of these countries then, but a lot has changed in the years since.

In 2010, Argentina's congress approved an "Equal Marriage" law, the same year same-sex marriage also became legal in Mexico City. A year later, Brazil's supreme court ruled same-sex couples were entitled to partnership rights through a kind of domestic partnership status, and some states -- including the largest, São Paulo -- are now performing full marriages for same-sex couples. The lower house of Uruguay's legislature voted in December 2012 to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, and its senate is widely expected to pass the law when it votes in April.

There were also several LGBT rights victories on issues beyond marriage. Though Bolivia's 2009 constitution bans same-sex marriage, it also bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Chile, one of South America's most conservative countries, passed a non-discrimination bill in 2012 and elected its first openly gay politician. And the government of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner built on its passage of the marriage law to enact the world's broadest legal protections for transgender people last year.

This is not to say that all of Latin America is a gay-rights paradise. Laws throughout Central America, where there is an especially strong evangelical movement, remain particularly hostile, as they do in Peru, where the mayor of Lima is currently facing a recall in part because of her attempts to pass an ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And many gay people remain closeted or face serious threats of hate crimes even in countries where the laws are very progressive -- in many places, the right to be safe is far more important than the right to marry.

But the rapid advance of same-sex partnership rights is striking, especially considering that it was only a few years ago that these governments were fighting with the Catholic Church to legalize divorce.

The specific reasons these gains have been possible differ in each country. But a major factor in all of them is that LGBT activists have managed to link their cause to broader efforts to shore up human-rights protections in countries still coping with the legacies of anti-democratic regimes that fell in the late 20th century. Additionally, the courts have embraced their role as defenders of human rights and measure themselves against international standards.

Take the case of Colombia. In 2011, the Constitutional Court ruled that same-sex couples must be considered a "family" under the law. It ordered the congress to pass a law equalizing the rights of same-sex couples within two years. As a backstop against congressional inaction, the ruling also said that notaries and judges could automatically begin solemnizing same-sex unions by June 20, 2013, with or without Congress's blessing.

This ruling was not perfect in the eyes of Colombian LGBT advocates -- the court stopped short of saying these protections must be called "marriage," leaving that up to the legislature to decide. But it spelled out that fundamental legal protections are at stake and put momentum on the side of marriage advocates.

Colombian law demands this level of protection be extended to same-sex couples, the court wrote in its decision, to protect gays and lesbians' fundamental rights "to personal development, autonomy and self-determination, [and] equality."

The ruling came despite strong pressure from the Catholic Church, which is continuing to lobby against same-sex marriage in the Colombian congress. A bill to legalize same-sex marriage cleared a preliminary vote in the Senate in December, but even the bill's sponsor, Senator Armando Benedetti, is pessimistic about its chances in the house of representatives.

 "In the House we confront a problem," Benedetti told me in a November interview in his Bogotá office. "That is the [influence of] the Catholic religion, which always puts its principles above the rights of minorities."

That's why the court is so important, he continued, expressing confidence that the court would clarify its support for same-sex marriages once they begin being performed in June of 2013. "The Constitutional Court, if we're going to speak very seriously, has always been in favor of the disadvantaged, of minorities, of the poor," said Benedetti.

Latin America's marriage movement has been helped by the fact that most countries' courts take international jurisprudence far more seriously than do courts in the United States. Human rights law takes an especially international perspective, since almost every country in Latin America is under the jurisdiction of two human rights bodies within the Organization of American States, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, charged with investigating violations of the American Convention on Human Rights, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which adjudicates violations on the recommendation of the Commission. Though the United States, Canada, and a handful of Caribbean nations do not recognize the court's jurisdiction, most of Latin America does.

LGBT rights have been a special priority for the Inter-American Commission since 2011, when it established a special unit dedicated to LGBT rights. Around 50 complaints of violations of these rights are now pending before the commission, according to Victor Madrigal-Borloz, who leads the team responsible for reviewing claims of human rights violations and is the chief technical advisor to the LGBT rights unit. Once the commission begins advancing these cases through the legal process, we could see the pace of change in Latin America accelerate even further.

That could be especially true on marriage rights. Three Chilean couples filed a complaint with the commission in September 2012 after losing a legal battle for recognition in their country's courts. Activists in Costa Rica have also announced their intention to seek help from tribunal after a domestic partnership law died in the country's legislature late last year. A Paraguayan couple who married in Argentina also plan to take their battle for recognition to the Inter-American Court. If these petitions are successful, it could potentially mean the undoing of marriage bans in even the most conservative countries in Latin America. But the court is already proving to be a force for marriage rights even before formally taking up the question.

It handed down its first LGBT rights decision in February 2012 in a case known as Karen Atala y Niñas v. Chile. The case was brought by a lesbian mother who lost custody of her children to her ex-husband because of her sexual orientation. The court's ruling was sweeping, saying for the first time that the American Convention on Human Rights "prohibits ... any rule, act, or discriminatory practice based on sexual orientation."

The significance for marriage rights was tested almost immediately in Mexico. Most Mexican states still refuse to perform same-sex marriages, even though they have been legal in Mexico City since 2010 and the country's supreme court has ruled that these marriages are valid nationwide. Three Oaxacan couples had filed a long-shot challenge to their state's ban on same-sex marriages shortly before the Atala decision was handed down, represented by a law student named Alex Alí Méndez Díaz. As their case headed to Mexico's supreme court, the Atala decision provided an additional powerful precedent on which to make their case.

On Dec. 5, Mexico's high court sided with the three couples and said that marriage could not be restricted to heterosexual couples. Technicalities of Mexico's legal system mean that more lawsuits are still required before same-sex couples can easily marry in every state, but this ruling means that it will soon be possible.

This year, the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing exactly the same questions that Mexico's court has already resolved. But the U.S. justice system is fiercely resistant to considering legal decisions from abroad.

When the justices take up the gay marriage cases in March, there will be more at stake than the status of American gay and lesbian couples. They will be deciding whether the United States will fall behind as its neighbors establish a new standard of human rights, or whether it will join a revolution that is well underway.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images