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CLIMATE CHANGE: A Year On, Little Change in Political Climate

Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, Mar 19 2010 (IPS) - This time last year, United States federal legislation on climate change was starting to take shape, seemingly more pressing matters were taking up the bulk of U.S. policymakers’ time, and a major climate conference was looming at the end of the year.

Twelve months later, the scene is eerily similar. The U.S. House of Representatives swiftly passed its bill last June, but the Senate now has four different paths it could take to address climate change – and has yet to move decisively toward any of them.

Likewise, while the economic recession has receded from the top of the Capital Hill agenda, reforming the country’s health care system now dominates debate here. And the follow-up to last year’s Copenhagen conference – in Cancún – awaits in November.

But hope is far from lost, the European Union’s Climate Action Commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, told reporters in Washington Thursday.

As the outgoing Danish Minister of Climate and Energy, Hedegaard was charged with hosting December’s Copenhagen, which has been largely criticised by groups and countries hoping for strong climate action that would halt rising global temperatures. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said global average temperatures should not be allowed to rise more than two degrees.

“Staying below two degrees is a tremendous challenge and when I think about that challenge, I think how are we going to make? But then I remember back to where we were just three or four years back…look at all the progress that’s been made,” said Hedegaard.

Her main message Thursday, though, and throughout her trip to Washington, is how crucial significant U.S. legislation to address climate change is to global efforts – and the domestic benefits it would have for the U.S.

In meetings over the past couple days with her U.S. counterpart Todd Stern – the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change – as well as other major players here like U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, White House Climate and Energy Office head Carol Browner and Representative Edward Markey, Hedegaard says she got the sense that they are not sure “what will fly and what will not fly or when” with regards to U.S. climate legislation.

“I definitely get the feeling that if [the legislation] fails this time then it would not come until after the midterm elections,” Hedegaard said. Those elections take place Nov. 2. The Cancun climate conference starts Nov. 29.

When the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change last met, in Copenhagen, a late push for the U.S. Senate to approve a climate bill before the start of the meeting had fallen short, and this was widely seen as decreasing both the potential effectiveness and the expectations of the conference.

But with Washington focused on health care right now and other top legislative priorities like financial regulation and immigration reform set to monopolise the bulk of legislators’ attentions later this year – and to use up any willingness of conservatives to support President Barack Obama’s proposals – the possibility of going into another UNFCCC meeting without U.S. domestic commitments already on the books seemed entirely real.

“It would be tremendous progress if we could see specific legislation coming out of the U.S. in the near future,” said Hedegaard. But she is prepared to face the possibility of moving forward without that legislation.

She proposes a “stepwise” approach leading into the Mexico meeting that would focus on specific deliverables, so that Mexico can mark “the turning point where we do not talk but actually act.”

Among these deliverables would be making available the funding promised to poorer countries to help them fight and cope with the effects of climate change. The EU, U.S. and Japan promised 30 billion dollars over the next three years as part of a “fast-start” funding package, but those promises have yet to be acted upon. The EU reconfirmed its commitment to providing the funding Tuesday and called on the other rich states to do the same.

“It is crucial for developing countries’ confidence in this process that finance is available by Cancun at the latest,” Hedegaard said. She says the Obama administration seems to share this view.

Back on Capitol Hill, it is far too early to say a climate bill is not possible before Cancún. Details of one of the proposals most likely to gain sufficient support emerged this week.

Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman – a Democrat, Republican and Independent, respectively – went over their bipartisan plan with industry groups Wednesday and environmental groups Thursday.

According to reports, the bill would aim to reduce U.S. emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels – about three to four percent below 1990 levels – by 2020 and by 80 percent by 2050. It would also set prices for greenhouse gas emission allowances and increase those prices over time. Less appealing to environmentalists, though, it would include expanded offshore drilling and funding for nuclear power plants.

The Senators say they will formally introduce the bill in mid-April, at which time it will undergo a five- to six-week analysis by the EPA and Congressional Budget Office. Graham has also warned that the increasingly divisive health care debate will cost Democrats some Republican allies they might have had in their push for a climate bill.

If even this compromise proposal fails, the fall-back option for proponents of climate change action would be a bill that does not cap greenhouse gas emissions. This “energy-only” bill would mandate a larger percentage of energy come from renewable sources, but it, too – in addition to doing nothing to directly limit the amount of greenhouse gases U.S. emitters put in the atmosphere – would include expanded offshore drilling.

Hedegaard says the U.S. need only look to the EU to see that it is in their best interest to pass a bill. “If you do this intelligently, it will lead to job creation,” she said. “Today, Germany has more jobs in renewables than in coal and nuclear combined – very different from the way it used to be…We can actually prove that it is good business to do this.”

The question the U.S. needs to ask itself, she said, is “Do you want to be part of this or not? Do you want to be a leader or be left behind?”

For the sake of international negotiations, she hopes the U.S. will choose the former.

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