When the US Congress unveiled a proposed national climate law for America last spring, the international community was left surprised and disappointed by its lack of ambition. “Handouts and loopholes” was the headline of The Economist story that summed it up best. “America’s climate-change bill is weaker and worse than expected,” the magazine declared.
The bill came as a sobering reality cheque, a comedown from the elation felt in climate circles at President Barack Obama’s election. The law aims to reduce US emissions a mere four percent below 1990 levels by 2020, far short of both what the science demands and the European Union’s reduction commitment of 20 percent. But the oddest thing about the so-called American Clean Energy and Security Act is that it sends its single most generous handout – more than USD 60 billion worth of free carbon credits – to the coal industry. Further, the fine print was even worse. It revealed that most of the proposed emissions cuts would likely come not from the actual reduction of industrial CO2 pollution in the US, but from a giant loophole that allowed for purchase of up to two billion tonnes of carbon ‘offset’ credits. Lawmakers had created a mechanism for allowing the US to outsource its emission reductions and proceed with business as usual at home.
The bill is one major reason why the prospects of an international climate agreement in Copenhagen are today looking dim. Without the leverage of good example and leadership, President Obama’s team has little negotiating leverage, or the means to sweeten the global deal, in order to secure the cooperation of developing nations. Since June, the bill has been stalled twice in the US Senate, and the latest word is that it will be taken up in October. As a result, final passage before the December meetings in Copenhagen is highly unlikely. That may be a good thing, however, because the Senate is expected to weaken the bill even further. This is not the reality that President Obama sought to underscore before the UN General Assembly in September. At the climate summit convened by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 22 September, he said “I am proud to say that the United States has done more to promote clean energy and reduce carbon pollution in the last eight months than at any other time in our history.” This statement may have been true, but it was of insufficient significance, and the speech as a whole proved to more a collection of quotable platitudes than a roadmap for progress.
On the international stage, the US is the world’s largest historical polluter, responsible for more global-warming emissions than any other country. As the world’s largest economy, it is also in the best position to provide the most funding for an international effort to combat climate change, estimated to require almost USD 150 billion annually by 2020. Many developing nations have another reason for believing that US responsibility for carbon emissions does not stop at its own borders. Its consumer-driven economy stokes industrial emissions all over the world. Experts have calculated, for example, that one-third of domestic Chinese greenhouse-gas emissions are attributable to industrial production for the export market. The largest chunk of Chinese exports ends up in the US, accounting for 27 percent of China’s export emissions. Are these emissions an overseas extension of the US’s carbon footprint?
The rest of world, meanwhile, expects US leadership for simple and compelling moral and practical reasons. But the historical and global accounting of emissions is one that few Americans could articulate or recognise as familiar. Instead, the heated domestic debate on climate policy revolves mostly around two questions, one of them tangential, the other self-involved: Is global warming real? And will the average American family have to pay more for energy?
Over the last decade, fossil-fuel interests and heavy polluters have spent enormous sums of money to convince Americans that global warming is a hoax, aided in the effort by a compliant media pursuing a distorted form of ‘balanced’ reporting. In recent years, these corporate interests have also thrown their dollars behind a fear-mongering campaign, to scare voters into believing that a price on carbon and climate action would destroy the US economy. Both are arguments that the administration of George W Bush supported during its two terms in office, and altogether the corporates and the administration have succeeded in trivialising the debate about a global environmental crisis by framing it in extremely narrow and partisan domestic terms. And what of the melting glaciers in the Himalaya? It is a far-away and barely relevant reality, though it threatens the viability of many of Asia’s major river systems and the lives of hundreds of millions.
The Obama administration has argued against the ‘let’s do nothing’ posture of a powerful opposition with a positive economic appeal – promoting green jobs and the future promise of a clean-energy economy. He must appeal to the self-interest of the voting public to chip away at the embarrassing public scepticism about global warming that he has inherited. The notion of international US responsibility for global warming and need for leadership to combat it is not something of great popular concern in the country. Most American voters are pre-occupied with an economic recovery that will restore jobs and get the consumer culture humming again after the financial collapse. They want a return to business as usual, and give little thought to their responsibility for the havoc that global climate disruption will cause if left unchecked.
The same powerful corporate interests that have misinformed the public about climate science and derided the valid economic case for a green recovery have also been able to maintain their hold over the election of lawmakers that write the laws of the land. During the presidential campaign, Obama pointedly refused to accept contributions from oil companies. But Congress nonetheless remains awash in campaign contributions from Big Oil, and kept in line by hundreds of lobbyists in Washington, DC paid to maintain pressure on a daily basis by the same corporate interests.
This is why, despite the election of Obama as president and an overwhelming majority in Congress of representatives from his own Democratic party, climate legislation in the US remains riddled with handouts and loopholes. It is also why the emissions-reduction target is so weak, and why US leadership on the international stage faces such a severe handicap. It was Democratic congressmen from coal-dependent US states, after all, who did the most to engineer the handouts and weaken the reduction targets so far. The campaign contributions from oil and coal interests proved more decisive than the fact that they belong to the same political party as the president, who as its leader asked for a much stronger bill.
While President Obama is in charge of setting US foreign policy, he cannot go to Copenhagen with a free hand. Whatever treaty he concludes is subject to Senate ratification. This is a constitutional requirement, made more difficult by the fact that ratification depends on winning not just a simple majority of the 100 available votes in the Senate, but a two-thirds majority. With the climate bill it is developing, Congress has already signalled what kind of treaty it will have the stomach to ratify. If President Obama’s team returns from Copenhagen with a global deal that includes more-ambitious US commitments, it faces certain rejection on the Senate floor. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was unanimously rejected 95-0 in a Senate resolution.
Clouding the picture further are two more domestic political factors that are making it difficult for the president to spend his political capital on a bold climate policy. First, President Obama’s primary goal is that reform of the US health-care system – not climate and energy policy. It is not difficult to understand why. Health care is the engine that drives one-sixth of the USD 13 trillion US economy; and even so, more than 45 million Americans, about 15 percent of the population, do not have health coverage. Many of those who do are served by a poorly functioning system riddled with waste and fraud. Health-care reform is demanding most of President Obama’s attention and energy, because his opponents are using every tool at their disposal to wage a ferocious campaign to defeat him. The stakes are high and the battle lines are drawn. Success on health care will allow the president to carry momentum into a battle over climate and energy law; failure could jeopardise his entire agenda, including climate change.
The other factor looming over climate-related reforms is the upcoming midterm election, in November 2010, when one-third of the senators and all of the representatives in Congress face the voters. It is also regarded as an interim referendum on the policies of the president. Despite being more than a year away, clearly President Obama already has his eye on these elections, in order to make sure that his presidency is not hampered by the defeat of fellow Democrats, which would diminish his Congressional majority.
In this situation, constrained by the inward focus of domestic politics, the US is prolonging the international leadership vacuum on global warming, which is allowing China to make moves to fill the void ahead of Copenhagen. Speaking after President Obama at the UN, President Hu Jintao promised progress by “a notable margin” on China’s emissions by 2020. Though un-quantified, the promise was enough to add weight to the growing perception that it is China, not the US, that is the world’s climate-change ‘good guy’, leading the way to a global deal.
~ David Sassoon is the founder of SolveClimate, a website offering daily climate news and analysis.