30 April 2005

30.04.05. The United States and global warming: a tale of two countries

Editor’s note: More in this excellent series, The politics of climate change, published by openDemocracy Ltd developed in partnership with the British Council as part of their ZeroCarbonCity initiative. For the full series go to http://www.opendemocracy.net/climate_change/index.jsp

The United States and global warming: a tale of two countries

Alden Meyer

The challenge of global climate change forces the world to ask: what to do about the United States? Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists says: ignore the Bush administration and get on with business.

To have a fighting chance to keep global warming within safe levels, industrialised countries must reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases by 80% below 2000 levels by 2050 – and we must begin to make those reductions right away. Under the Kyoto Protocol, Europe, Japan, and other industrialised countries have committed to start making modest cuts in their emissions, and have acknowledged the need for much deeper cuts in the years ahead.

In stark contrast, US emissions are projected to increase 14% over the next decade, and the administration of President George W Bush has made it crystal clear that it will not engage in negotiations – or even informal discussions – about mandatory emissions limits.

President Bush has proposed no meaningful alternative to Kyoto. His voluntary, business-as-usual approach is heavy on long-term technology research, but ignores the tremendous potential of currently available clean energy technologies to cut global warming pollution right now. His administration has consistently opposed serious policies to accelerate deployment of these technologies, such as the proposal supported by 58 senators – including 10 Republicans – to require electric utilities to increase the share of their electricity generated from renewable energy resources from the current two percent up to 10% by 2020. And when California responds to the federal leadership vacuum by putting sensible limits on global warming pollution from new vehicles, the Bush administration joins the auto companies in challenging the state’s right to take such action.

Fifty years from now, the Bush presidency will likely be remembered for two things: the war in Iraq, and the utter irresponsibility of the president’s climate policy.

And while 43 senators voted for the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, which would establish mandatory economy-wide emissions caps, 55 senators, including most Republicans, opposed it. One of them, who by luck would have it chairs the Senate’s Environment Committee, called global warming the “greatest hoax every perpetrated on the American people”.

Beyond the Beltway

Fortunately, all is not doom and gloom in America. In addition to California’s path-breaking emissions limits on new vehicles, a number of states are pursuing mandatory caps on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, and eighteen states have adopted renewable electricity generation standards. Over 150 cities and counties have signed on to the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign, setting specific emissions reduction targets and developing action plans to meet the target.

Many business leaders are also stepping up to the plate, setting emissions reduction goals for their companies. DuPont, for example, set out to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 65% from 1990 levels by 2010; by 2002, the company had exceeded this goal, achieving actual reductions of 67 percent. Others are speaking out on the need for mandatory national emissions limits. John Rowe, chairman of Exelon Corporation, one of the nation’s largest electric utilities, recently endorsed a call to regulate global warming emissions, saying “the science on climate change has become overwhelming.”

Another major utility, Cinergy Corporation, has stated that a “well-constructed policy that gradually and predictably” reduces global warming emissions can be managed “without undue disruption to the company or the economy.” Many other corporate leaders share these views, but are reluctant to speak out, afraid of retaliation if they publicly disagree with the Bush administration on this issue.

Meanwhile, other voices are joining the debate, such as evangelical Christian leaders motivated by the likely severe impact of global warming on the world’s poor and the Bible’s call for stewardship of God’s creation. As the Rev. Rich Cizik, vice-president of governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, recently put it: “I don’t think God is going to ask us how he created the Earth, but he will ask us what we did with what he created.” As evangelical Christians are widely seen as a core component of the Republican Party’s political base, their engagement on this issue is quite significant.

While these are all hopeful signs, there is little chance they will produce a change of heart in President Bush in his remaining years in office. It is more likely that this mounting pressure will cause the next president, whether Republican or Democrat, to reverse course and restore American leadership in the fight against global warming.

The world’s choice

With negotiations due to start later this year on emissions reductions beyond the end of Kyoto’s first commitment period in 2012, the rest of the world has three options in responding to current US intransigence.

First, try to engage the Bush administration on post-2012 climate policy. Given the administration’s posture, this would be like talking to a brick wall.

Second, wait for the next administration to take office in January 2009 to start negotiations on what comes next. Given the urgent need to minimise the impacts of climate change, the world can’t afford such a delay. Moreover, this would create uncertainty amongst the world’s businesses, just now starting to adjust to the reality of binding emissions limits under the Kyoto Protocol, as to whether those limits will in fact continue and deepen post-2012.

Third, enter into these negotiations without any expectation of meaningful participation by the United States. This can and should be done in a way that makes US re-entry into the process possible after President Bush leaves office. One suggestion is to informally consult the growing number of US governors, mayors, and business CEOs who are taking progressive action on global warming as to the shape of the future climate treaty regime. This would ensure that constructive US views are taken into account in the negotiating process, while building support within the United States for the post-2012 agreement that results from the negotiations.

This last option is far from ideal, but is the only one that holds out any prospect for progress.

The European Union must take the lead in these negotiations, by engaging major developing countries such as Brazil, China, and India, and by declaring that it will move forward with further emissions reductions post-2012 even in the face of US inaction. Implementation of its existing Kyoto commitments will also show how seriously the EU takes this issue, and will demonstrate the fallacy of President Bush’s claim that meeting the Kyoto targets can only come at the costs of the economy and jobs.

In fact, it’s the United States’s non-participation in the emerging global climate regime that poses the real long-term threat to the US economy. Companies in Europe, Japan, and other countries that are moving ahead to cut global warming emissions are grabbing market share from US companies in renewable energy systems, fuel-efficient vehicles, and other clean technologies, not only in their own markets but also in explosively growing new markets in China, India, and other developing countries.

It may seem a paradox that the best way to ultimately draw the United States back into the international climate treaty regime is by not wasting time trying to engage the current US administration. But that is the reality the world now faces. Only by demonstrating the political will to move forward on the deeper emissions reductions needed beyond 2012 can other countries add to the mounting domestic pressure for the United States to get serious about global warming.

Copyright ©Alden Meyer 2005. Published by openDemocracy Ltd. You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only.


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04 October, 2005 09:11  

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