It’s been a year since Barack Obama’s historic election as our first African-American president. That night, many Americans shed tears of joy, exchanged congratulatory embraces, and voiced high expectations for real change.

As the Obama administration’s first year draws to a close, we’re approaching another historic moment. The world’s nations are negotiating a deal to steer the planet away from catastrophic climate change. And by December, if an agreement is reached at a summit in Copenhagen, developed countries like the United States will have to step forward and put binding targets for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions on the table.

Yes, developing countries-with their increasing carbon footprints-should come to the table, too (and in fact, many are already making great strides at implementing renewable energy and energy efficiency programs). But the responsibility rests squarely on wealthy industrialized nations to own up to our historical role in causing the climate crisis and make the first move. And legally, developed countries have an obligation to direct financial and technical support to developing nations to enable them to shift to low-carbon growth pathways.

But our government says it can’t get out ahead of Congress and commit to anything internationally until lawmakers pass a domestic climate bill. Meanwhile, Congress says it’s waiting for the White House to send the right signals before pushing hard on targets and climate finance for poorer countries.

So instead of leading on climate, as he’d promised to do in campaign speeches, Obama’s administration has called for each country-rich or poor-to simply pledge its individual domestic climate commitment. This “bottom-up” approach, as U.S. negotiators call it, sounds like a grassroots effort, but in reality it means that countries will offer up as little as they think is politically feasible, a global cap on greenhouse gases that keeps us safe be damned.

If Obama misses the mark on climate change this December it won’t just hurt people in countries like the Maldives-an island nation that’s likely to disappear under the Indian Ocean before the end of the century. It puts those of us who put Obama in power at risk, too. Without a strong global deal, low-income communities and communities of color, which are most vulnerable to climate impacts, will begin to feel the brunt of coastal flooding, more extreme weather events, water scarcity and costlier food. Our workers will be at a disadvantage as green energy sectors in other parts of the world are bolstered by their governments while the United States lags behind. And our children and their children will suffer, thanks to the short-term vision of business-as-usual in Washington.

What we need Obama to do now is direct his administration to negotiate a just, binding, and effective deal in Copenhagen, with emissions cuts from developed countries of at least 45% by 2020 from 1990 levels. And we need the United States to take the lead in creating a Global Climate Fund under the authority of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that supports the just transition to low-carbon economies in developing countries.

I believe that Obama, like the country he leads, can still make a change for the better.

This article was distributed by Minuteman Media.

Janet Redman is co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies, a multi-issue progressive think tank that turns ideas into action for peace, justice, and the environment.

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