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United States: Obama misses opportunity on climate change

PRESIDENT Barack Obama addressed the US from the Oval Office last month, intending to reframe the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in terms of a push for legislation on climate change. He failed

For the country's environmental lobby it was seen as a big opportunity to revive the Climate Change Bill in the Senate, at a point when few politicians would defend producers of fossil fuels. Only a few weeks earlier, the consensus had been that the Bill was lost, as the compromise of extending drilling permits in return for national carbon limits was undermined by the oil spill. Now campaigners were asking why Obama didn't take this environmental tack earlier. Expectations of the speech were also raised by Obama's choice to speak from the Oval Office, his first of the presidency.

But Obama failed to spell out how the Climate Change Bill should move forward. He gave no deadline for it to be passed and he made no mention of putting a price on carbon. The tone was oratorical, but vague, said commentators. "For decades, we have talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels," Obama said. "Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny."

Robert Reich, labour secretary to Bill Clinton and now an adviser to the White House on the economy, said the speech "was, to be frank, vapid", comparing it to a history lesson on motorways. Others suggested it was a mistake to focus on clean energy. That was certainly the opinion of Republican senators, who accused Obama of exploiting the emergency to impose a "jobs killing" national energy tax.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who supports a cap-and-trade plan, said: "Those who were waiting for the president to get behind comprehensive energy reform had to be disappointed. He talked about the status quo being unacceptable. But he didn't boldly push an agenda. I think a lot of people took it to mean lukewarm support."

The speech leaves Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat leading the energy debate, with no clear direction for the Climate Change Bill. The options vary from cap-and-trade covering multiple sectors of the economy to a system just for US power plants. There are also calls to reduce the bill to incentives for energy efficiency and a nationwide electricity standard. "At this stage, I'm thinking about everything," said Reid ahead of a meeting with the Democratic caucus.

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