From Flop'enhagen to Can'tcun? US climate policy before the mid-term elections and the UN summit

bridges vol. 27, October 2010 / OpEds & Commentaries

By Alexander Ochs

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Alexander Ochs

It all started so nicely. The hope for change that Barack Obama had raised among American voters was felt by citizens worldwide, including those yearning for a change in US environmental policy. After all, Obama had made global warming and energy policy important cornerstones of his campaign. Once in the White House, the newly elected President explained that "few challenges facing America - and the world - are more urgent than combating climate change" and that his "presidency will mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change." Repeatedly he stressed that "the nation that wins this competition [for new energy technologies] will be the nation that leads the global economy." What's left, as we approach mid-term elections in Obama's first administration, is a very mixed bag.  There have been important successes, including over $60 billion that were earmarked for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009; the first tightening of Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards in three decades; and the federal Environmental Protection Agency 's "Endangerment Finding" that recognizes, as a follow-up of the Supreme Court ruling Massachusetts et al. vs. EPA, that the  agency  has the right to regulate greenhouse gases as air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. To the great disappointment of the environmentalists, however, comprehensive climate and energy legislation, including a market-based system with mandatory economy-wide emission targets as well as strong incentives for the employment of energy efficiency measures and renewable energy technologies, has not been passed. 

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} The situation that has unfolded over the last 1 ½  years is almost absurd. A White House and all involved secretaries and agencies support strong climate policy; a majority of the public wants effective climate action; a thorough climate and energy bill finally passed the House; and then there is also majority support for climate legislation in the Senate - albeit this majority is not filibuster-proof. The Senate's leadership was unable to get 60+ votes. And here the story ends for now. A minority of 40+ Senators puts a hold on domestic legislation and shuts a historic window of opportunity.

"[...] Few challenges facing America - and the world - are more urgent than combating climate change" (President Obama)

US climate policy, since the issue came onto the political agenda 20 years ago, has been quite consistent. It has been consistent insofar as there has always been a lot of loud rhetoric and energetic controversy, but very little concrete action. There are at least three reasons for this gridlock: First, the high number of potential veto players in the US political system; Presidents Clinton and Obama, who took proactive stances, were facing a legislature reluctant to act. Second, a campaign finance system that puts organized private interests -  interests in the status quo - in the driving seat for financing the re-election of public policy personnel. There can be no doubt that strong climate and energy legislation would be in the environmental, health, economic, and security interests of the American people, but there are potential losers in the carbon-producing and carbon-intensive sectors that are just a wee bit too rich and powerful. Finally, there is the increased partisanship of US policy. The Republican Senators, including former climate "champions" like John McCain, closed ranks and opposed climate legislation as a block. It remains McCain's own secret why, in 2003, he introduced cap-and-trade legislation much like the bills he is now opposing. Like its decision-makers, the country as a whole is increasingly paralyzed by a monumental societal divide. On the one side of a society that has drifted further to the right in its entirety since the early Reagan years, are mostly moderates and a very few progressives who want to find political answers to the most pressing questions the nation faces; on the other side is the Tea Party, Fox News, the "no"  faction - no government, no taxes, no change, no climate legislation.

With Republicans predicted to take over at least the House at the mid-term elections in November, comprehensive climate legislation including binding emission targets and timetables seems to be off the table for the foreseeable future. There is a remaining flicker of hope that Congress will pass a trimmed-down energy bill during this year's lame duck session, or that the EPA will make use of its court-backed authority to regulate industry greenhouse gas emissions as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Either action would be an important step forward, but neither can substitute for the bold, visionary, comprehensive, and long-term legislation that still seemed possible in the spring of this year. As a result, the ball will then be back in the court of sub-federal decision-makers. The states and municipalities that had their eyes on Washington in hope of federal leadership will have to ramp-up their work again and try to fill, as well as they can, the political vacuum left by national inaction.

A 'polar' loss: As Hope'nhagen became Flop'enhagen, Cancun will then
inevitably  become Cant'cun.

This all means no good news for the international climate negotiation process either. Congress essentially denies the American president his most important tool - credibility - to take a leadership role in international climate diplomacy. At the November Cancun climate summit, much like a year ago at the Copenhagen summit, we are running the risk that a minority of nay-sayers in the US capital, in addition to the damage they are doing at home, will hold the whole international climate negotiation process hostage. As Hope'nhagen became Flop'enhagen, Cancun will then inevitably  become Cant'cun, with an American delegation that wants to lead but is not able to. It was a diplomatic masterpiece to see how the US president, whose delegation had blocked progress on some of the key issues for much of the Copenhagen negotiations, could return home as the dealmaker of the Copenhagen Accord - a picture in his pocket showing him with his sleeves rolled up and surrounded by the presidents of the new key powers China, India, Brazil, and South Africa.  The recent preparatory summit in Tianjin has shown that the "buck," for who's to blame for the international impasse, has passed from China to the United States.

Europe, once the highly acclaimed leader of climate policy, but since Copenhagen tarnished, dilatory, and discordant, has to find a strategy for how to deal with a transatlantic partner tied-up yet again. To be sure, collaboration with the United States on climate and energy should be increased, not decreased; but it seems to be most promising in other contexts than the UNFCCC - the G20, the Major Economies Forum/Clean Energy Ministerial, the multiple technology-oriented partnerships. As for the UN process, Europe needs to concentrate on the areas where progress with the US seems possible - financial assistance for developing countries being the most prominent one - and build new alliances with those who can and want to move forward on the issues with no possibility of being accepted by the US.  China, India, Mexico, South Korea, and many others  are, or will soon be, as reliant on fossil energy imports, and as motivated to build a low-carbon economy, as the EU is.  And once it becomes irrevocably clear that sustainability means economic boom, not doom, we might see more Senators rethinking their position. Who knows, maybe a story that once started so nicely will someday find its happy ending.


Alexander Ochs is director of the Climate and Energy Program of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington DC and founding editor of the Forum for Atlantic Climate and Energy Talks (FACET).