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As Europe Fiddles, U.S. May Take Lead on Climate Change

Recent backpedaling in Europe may signal the end of its leadership on climate change. Can Obama push America to the font?

Is global climate leadership about to pass from Europe to the United States? It seems so. And Barack Obama's plans to rejoin international climate negotiations, green American energy policy, and build an electricity super-grid to bring renewable energy out of the West could be a planet-saver.

Europe's leadership on fighting climate change seemed unassailable until just a few months ago. It had grabbed that position more than a decade ago, when Germany's then environment minister, a former East German chemist named Angela Merkel, negotiated the groundwork for the Kyoto Protocol in Berlin in 1995. Two years later, Europe basically pushed Bill Clinton to send Al Gore to Kyoto to sign up to the first emissions targets -- which were never ratified by the U.S. Senate and subsequently repudiated by George W Bush.

Early last month, Merkel -- now German Chancellor -- signaled Europe's retreat. She successfully lobbied on behalf of her coal-burning and car-making industries to water down European Union plans for carbon emissions trading in a new EU energy package. It is now unclear whether EU promises to cut emissions by 20 percent by 2020 -- and 30 percent if other developed nations will go along -- can be met.

This is not to say that Europe's climate policies are bust. But its leadership role certainly is. At international climate talks in Poznan, Poland last month, environmentalists took to calling the once-revered German leader "Darth Merkel."

The inauguration of Barack Obama now looks like the world's best chance to break free of the climate trap. The incoming U.S. president says meeting the challenge of climate change and ensuring America a secure energy supply are top priorities that can both be achieved by weaning the country off its dependence on imports of foreign fossil fuels.

Among the climate cognoscenti, the sense that a really important shift may be about to happen was accentuated when Obama announced in December that he had chosen Steven Chu as his energy secretary.

 The Nobel prize-winning head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has helped pioneer research on energy efficiency, solar energy, and cellulosic "second generation" biofuels. Last year he announced a $500 million deal with BP to fund a new Energy Biosciences Institute at Berkeley. "We are seeking industry partnerships," he said then. "We seek solutions. We don't seek, dare I say, science papers anymore."

Chu is also an advocate of a national high-voltage electricity super-grid to distribute renewable energy across the United States. In 2005, he went to Washington to pitch the idea -- none too successfully, it seems -- to Bush's energy secretary Samuel Bodman. And now it fits right in with Obama's campaign promise to establish "a new digital grid... to make effective use of renewable energy."

It also fits in as part of the new, green, job-creating, economy-reviving, American infrastructure that Obama promises -- his 21st century version of the New Deal's Grand Coulee and Hoover dams.

In September I visited California, where they are already test-driving some of Obama's plans under the unlikely gaze of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The state legislature has passed a key law to enact emissions reductions programs through regulation and carbon trading. The laws are intended as a model for federal action.

Even more striking are the green energy entrepreneurs tooling up in California. "If Barack Obama wins," David Mills, the bicycling-mad boss of solar energy pioneers Ausra in Palo Alto, told me, "then it's going to be boom time here." He was cheering even louder with the news of Chu's appointment.

Mills and Ausra are in the vanguard of what many believe will become the critical renewable technology for America -- solar thermal energy. Unlike photovoltaics, which convert solar heat directly into electricity, solar thermal concentrates solar energy using mirrors to heat water, which is then used to drive conventional steam turbines. One of the advantages of solar thermal is that it allows the energy to be stored for when it is needed, in the form of hot water.