Friday, December 11, 2009

Obama Needs the Senate to Succeed on Climate Change

President Obama is a multilateralist and a champion of emissions reductions, but he will not produce a binding agreement at COP15 because of the inaction of the US Senate.

The President addressed those that oppose him during his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway. "There is little scientific dispute that if we do nothing, we will face more drought, more famine, more mass displacement -- all of which will fuel more conflict for decades,” Obama said.

Greenpeace has urged the President to show that he is worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize by showing leadership in Copenhagen. “He won it, and now is the time to earn it,” commented Damon Moglen. “Obama, in part, has been awarded the Nobel Prize with the expectation that he will deliver the kind of leadership necessary to get a climate treaty,” Moglen said.

Yesterday the President received some much needed help from three Senators who together reflect the spectrum of political parties in Washington. On Thursday December 10, Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) sent a letter to the President proposing a new climate bill that would cut carbon emissions by 17% by the year 2020.

Although this is 3% less than the 20% in the climate bill that passed in the House earlier this year, the letter is noteworthy because it was drafted by a Democrat, an Independent and a Republican. However, the compromise bill would push for reductions in carbon emissions through some questionable means, including incentives for offshore drilling, and low emission coal technology.

While the President may be serious about limiting emissions through legislation, many in the Senate do not share his view. If climate change legislation does not pass in the Senate, the US Environmental Protection Agency has been given the authority to enact regulations that would curb emissions. However, a climate change law would be more enduring and more nuanced than the EPA's proposed regulatory initiatives. In the legislative process, various interests would have an opportunity to contribute to the debate and help shape the final law, in a regulatory effort these players would not have a forum to contribute. While laws have many advantages over regulation, laws are passed in the Senate not the oval office.

Cap-and-trade is an important provision in the original climate change bill. However some are advocating for its removal and under the new bill proposed by Senators Kerry, Graham and Lieberman, cap-and-trade would be scaled back. Removal of the cap-and-trade provision would gut the climate change bill the way the health care bill is being gutted by the removal of the public option. Unlike the public option, cap-and-trade is not a government sponsored plan, it is an ingenious way to tie carbon to free markets, in effect to make industry accountable for its own emissions. Senator Lieberman remarked, “That is going to be a very active area of negotiation."

European efforts to manage climate change are far ahead of the US. Sweden is the most recent European nation to pledge money to the “fast-start” fund. On Thursday, a Swedish government spokeswomen said that Sweden would donate $800 million Euros. The “fast-start” fund was created to assist developing nations fight climate change, however this idea is unpopular in the US. In a Times of India online report, Todd Stern, President Obama’s climate change envoy, said that the US was not ready to fund developing nations in the fight against climate change.

The US is not expected to improve its emission reduction targets at COP15, nor will the US disclose its share of funding to help poorer countries manage climate change. As a consequence the EU and Japan are unlikely to sign on to an agreement on climate aid funding.

A global formula to manage climate change cannot be achieved without American leadership. As the world's largest per capita emitter, the US has a moral responsibility to all the inhabitants of the earth. As the world's weathiest nation, the US also has a fiduciary responsibility to stakeholders in the American economy.

The US risks being left behind as the global economy shifts to more sustainable practices. “I believe the green economy is coming. It’s not a question of if it’s going to happen; it’s when it’s going to happen.” said Graham, the only Republican Senator to work on a climate resolution. What the US does or doesnt do with regard to its climate change policy will have global repercussions.

President Obama may say all the right things in Copenhagen, but despite his international prestige we are not going to see a binding legal agreement at COP15. Although much work remains, Kerry's statement that, “The US Senate is committed to addressing this [climate change] challenge,” places the onus on legislators.

If America is to assume its responsibilities and prepare for the new economic reality, the Senate must summon the courage to pass climate change legislation that reduces emissions and creates a market for carbon trading.

Despite all the activity in Denmark, the front line of the climate issue is not in Copenhagen, it is in Washington.
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