Inside Story

Current affairs and culture from Australia and beyond

Is it all over for climate change policy in the United States?

Not quite, writes Michael Jacobs. But the battle will be a tough one

Michael Jacobs 29 July 2010 1881 words

Still optimistic: Senator John Kerry. Center for American Progress Action Fund

AS POLITICAL announcements go, it can’t have sounded to an innocent observer like a very big one. The US Senate would shortly debate a bill to regulate offshore drilling and provide incentives for home energy efficiency, declared Majority Leader Harry Reid in Washington last week.

But it was not in the content of the forthcoming bill that the significance of his announcement lay. It was in what Reid confirmed would not be in the draft law. No greenhouse gas emission targets, no cap-and-trade scheme, and no renewable electricity standard. In fact, though he couldn’t quite bring himself to say it, Reid’s announcement was close to being that there would be no climate change legislation in the United States for the remainder of Barack Obama’s presidency. If that proves to be the case, the ramifications would be global. It would shift the chances of reaching agreement on a comprehensive climate change treaty within the next three years to more or less zero.

To be sure, even as Reid was fixing the nails in the coffin of American climate legislation, desperate efforts were being made to push the lid open from the inside. The indefatigable Democrat senator John Kerry, one-time presidential candidate and now leading congressional climate campaigner, declared that it might still be possible to bring a climate bill before the “lame-duck” session of congress after the mid-term elections in November. The White House said that climate provisions could reappear in a “conference” merging Senate and House of Representatives proposals. The environmental NGOs said they would fight on. But few in Washington now give these hopes much credence. There simply aren’t enough votes in the Senate to pass a bill; and after the expected Republican gains in the mid-terms there will be even fewer. The tide of American concern about climate change never rose very high, and it seems now to be ebbing away still further.

How has it come to this? It was certainly not what was meant to happen. Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency on a strong climate platform. After eight years in which George W. Bush had stood resolutely against both domestic legislation and global agreement, Obama promised to cut US emissions by 14 per cent by 2020, returning them to 1990 levels. To do this he would introduce a cap-and-trade scheme covering the entire US economy. Emphasising the importance of American “energy independence,” he committed to major new investment in renewables and nuclear power. And the United States would rejoin the global climate negotiations.

Obama’s presidency started well. One of his earliest decrees was to give the Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act, long denied by Bush. Around US$70 billion of the president’s early fiscal stimulus package was for clean energy investment. Encouraged by the White House, the House of Representatives drafted and passed a comprehensive climate bill in June last year, named after its two Democrat sponsors, Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, with a headline 17 per cent cut in emissions by 2020 and further provisions to raise this. Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman took up the legislative baton in the Senate. And led by an active State Department, the United States convened a new climate forum to help move the formal negotiations forward.

But then, about a year ago, it all began to go wrong. Four different factors began first to slow momentum and then to reverse it altogether.

The first was the economic downturn. Accustomed to low energy and gasoline prices, the American public would always take some convincing to support measures that would raise both. So cap-and-trade architects ensured that there would be a price ceiling in their proposed scheme, and advocates emphasised the potential for new “green jobs.” But once unemployment started to rise, the counter-argument gained ground. Coal, oil and heavy industry business lobbies ran TV ads calling climate legislation a “job killer” and a “new energy tax,” and senators in industrial states began to run scared, protesting that the time was not right for climate legislation.

Then came the “climategate” scandal. The theft and leak of private emails from climate researchers at the British University of East Anglia, which appeared to show that data had been manipulated, had an impact on media reporting of climate science throughout the world; but nowhere with more virulence than in the United States. A major strand of American public opinion was never convinced of the evidence for human-made global warming; now an entire industry of climate sceptics and deniers swarmed over the allegations to make the argument that climate change was a myth. A freezing winter didn’t help – with the scientific sophistication for which it is known, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News ran banner headlines during the cold spell asking “Global warming: has the President looked outside lately?”

Third was Copenhagen. To his credit, Barack Obama not only went to the UN climate conference in December but also committed to the Waxman–Markey emissions reduction targets (even without Senate endorsement) and to aid for developing countries. But the failure in Copenhagen to agree to more than a non-binding outline deal left many in Congress unconvinced that action at home would be reciprocated abroad, particularly by an increasingly assertive China.

And the final factor was healthcare reform. As Obama’s number one legislative priority took longer and longer to pass through the Senate, clogging up not just the autumn session before Copenhagen but also the New Year period after it, the space and moment for a new climate law receded. Burning up political capital on healthcare, the administration never put its full weight behind a climate law. (This has made Obama the object of fierce criticism from the environmental lobby, which has effectively accused him of scuppering the bill through lack of effort.) Kerry and Lieberman managed to recruit one Republican to the cause, Senator Lindsey Graham; but nobody followed, and in the end even Graham pulled out. Senate bills need sixty votes to pass, and with around ten Democrats resolutely opposed and – in the intensely partisan atmosphere of the present Congress – no Republicans in support, the Kerry–Lieberman bill found itself with nowhere left to turn.

Ironically, it was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that signalled the end of the climate road. To many environmentalists the Deepwater Horizon disaster powerfully reinforced the need for the United States to wean itself off fossil fuels: if this was the price of the ever-expanding demand for oil, they argued, America needed to change course. President Obama himself tried to pivot the post-tragedy debate towards the need for US energy independence. But it all fell on deaf ears. The dominant congressional reaction to the Gulf spill has been a desire to punish BP and to ensure that oil companies in general provide larger compensation funds – hence the principal content of the bill announced by Senator Reid. Paradoxically, a relaxation of constraints on offshore drilling was one of the concessions to the Republicans that Kerry had included in his climate bill; but this could not survive the spill.

SO IS EVERYTHING now lost for US action on climate change? Not quite. The immediate focus of climate campaigners will be a concerted push to include in the forthcoming Senate bill a renewable electricity standard – a minimum federal requirement for the proportion of electricity to come from renewables. Though Senator Reid claimed this had no more support in the Senate than cap and trade, it has strong backing from the fast-expanding US renewable energy sector, and it could yet scrape through a combined energy bill with the House.

At the same time the Environmental Protection Agency will continue its drive to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. No one expects the EPA to get very far very quickly – a combination of annual Republican attempts in Congress to deny its authority and business moves to contest its jurisdiction in the courts will ensure the pace of regulation remains grindingly slow. But it will at least ensure a constant background hum of action to reduce emissions; and if it succeeded, the EPA could cut a serious swathe through some of the worst polluters.

And the Obama administration will continue to take piecemeal action. Already its stimulus package is yielding significant new spending on areas such as home insulation and carbon capture and storage. The new bill will provide increased incentives to run trucks on natural gas and cars on electricity. Another push could yet be made to raise vehicle emissions standards, and to use air-pollution controls to close old coal-fired power stations. With the recession slashing energy demand, US emissions are likely to fall by around 10 per cent by 2020 even without a climate law.

But no one should be in any doubt about how tough this is going to be. As the Tea Party movement continues its apparently relentless rise, America’s right wing has found a new momentum, and action on climate change is one of its targets. Throughout the United States, incumbent congressmen and women who supported climate legislation last year are being targeted for retribution in the mid-terms. And perhaps not surprisingly, California is shaping up to be the biggest battleground. Under its relatively liberal Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, California in recent years has spearheaded action on climate by a number of US states, with low-carbon energy regulation and a proposed regional cap-and-trade system to enter into force in 2012. But all this is now under attack. A proposition (number 23) to be placed on Californian ballot papers in November’s elections will propose the repeal of the state climate law, including its cap-and-trade scheme. The new Republican candidate for governor, former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, has said she will suspend the law even if the proposition fails. So with Democrat candidate Jerry Brown coming out strongly in the law’s favour, an almighty climate struggle looks set to play out on the west coast.

Despite the gloomy prognosis for the next few years, a number of American analysts continue to argue that the United States will come round to comprehensive low-carbon legislation eventually – perhaps in a second Obama presidential term (if that happens). They point out that continuing regulatory uncertainty will make already fragile investment in new energy supply increasingly difficult; it was, after all, the problem of operating under a patchwork of state policies, combined with the threat of EPA regulation, that pushed many energy and industrial companies into supporting a federal cap-and-trade scheme in the first place. That coalition of interests remains. At the same time, American high tech companies will increasingly complain that lack of US action is allowing China to take a technological lead in the new green industries, adding to the pressure for “green jobs” policies in Congress.

And eventually, it is argued, the scientific and energy-independence grounds for action on climate change will return to the fore as well, even in America. But even optimists don’t suggest that the world should hold its breath. •

Read next

1448 words

The US reads the riot act to Pakistan

Will Pakistan continue its longstanding policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, asks Sandy Gordon


Above: Coming just before this month’s release of the “Afghan War Logs” by WikiLeaks, Hillary Clinton’s comments in Pakistan are especially interesting.
Photo: Chad J. McNeeley/ Department of Defense

Above: Coming just before this month’s release of the “Afghan War Logs” by WikiLeaks, Hillary Clinton’s comments in Pakistan are especially interesting.
Photo: Chad J. McNeeley/ Department of Defense