Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Case for a Climate Bill

The New York Times editorial board is calling on President Obama to forge ahead with a climate bill, despite the loss of the Democrats' 60th Senate seat. According to conventional wisdom (and some pundits), the chances of Congress taking action on energy and climate this year are now "somewhere between terrible and nil." However, the editorial challenges Obama to "prove the conventional wisdom wrong by making a full-throated case for a climate bill in his State of the Union speech this week."

Some of the reasons action cannot wait? In addition to concerns about climate change (which only continue to mount in severity), the editorial cites issues of national competitiveness that are at stake:
  • China is "moving aggressively to create jobs in the clean-energy industry. Beijing not only plans to generate 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, but hopes to become the world’s leading exporter of clean energy technologies. Five years ago, it had no presence at all in the wind manufacturing industry; today it has 70 manufacturers. It is rapidly becoming a world leader in solar power, with one-third of the world’s manufacturing capacity."
  • American credibility is on the line. At COP15, the US pledged to "meet at least the House’s 17 percent target. Success in the Senate is essential to delivering on that pledge. Failure would undo many of the good things [Obama] achieved in Copenhagen, and it would give reluctant powers like China an excuse to duck their pledges." [Not sure about this last sentence with regard to China, which agreed to a voluntary carbon intensity reduction unilaterally ... and they probably mean to keep it.]
  • Finally, the editorial notes, "the 'jobs argument' should impress the Senate ... The climate change bills pending in the Senate would not begin to bite for several years, when the recession should be over. The cost to households, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would be small. A good program would create more jobs than it cost."
Unfortunately, things still look a bit hazy, despite Harry Reid's earlier announcement that the climate bill was on the agenda for March. The editorial worries that "many Democrats as well as Republicans seem willing to settle for what would be the third energy bill in five years—loans for nuclear power, mandates for renewable energy, new standards for energy efficiency. These are all useful steps. But the only sure way to unlock the investments required to transform the way the country produces and delivers energy is to put a price on carbon." (This presumably refers to private capital markets rather than government-sponsored programs or large-scale federal investment).

A couple other relevant notes:

1) Tree Hugger asks: Could Scott Brown's Victory Be Good for Clean Energy Reform?

2) As we saw at COP15, international action on climate often seems to hinge on U.S. domestic politics.

As Reuters AlertNet reports, "It's hard to imagine an upset in one U.S. Senate race could derail plans for a new international climate change treaty." But "the U.S. Democratic party's loss of a long-held Senate seat in Massachusetts this week, to Republican Scott Brown, means getting key climate change legislation passed in the United States just got a lot harder. And without willingness by the U.S. -- the world’s historically largest carbon emitter -- to commit to ambitious cuts in emissions, few other nations will feel pressure to be ambitious in their own plans."

Canada, for example, is concerned about the legislative stall in its southern neighbor and what it will mean for their own energy system.

There are real worries that a minority in the Senate -- 41 people -- can simply hold the entire world's efforts hostage, either by preventing action at home by the world's second-largest emitter (reduces incentives for others to act, makes agreement harder to reach by not living up to "common but differentiated responsibilities") or simply refusing to allow the U.S. to take part in an international regime.

It should be noted that those 41 senators would not all be from the same political party, as support for climate action is coming from both sides of the aisle. John Kerry (D), Lindsey Graham (R), and Joe Lieberman (I) recently visited the White House to discuss a bipartisan climate bill, and a coalition is in the works that may be able to pass it.

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