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Hopes Fade for Languishing U.S. Climate Bill

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Jul 26 2010 (IPS) - The Barack Obama administration has found success in passing healthcare reform and legislation touted as an “overhaul” of the U.S. financial system, but last week it became clear that the Democrats wouldn’t advance a climate change bill until after the August recess and, more likely, until next year.

On Jul. 22, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid announced that Senate Democrats would not take up the climate bill before the August recess.

Reid told reporters that Democrats simply did not have the votes to move forward on the legislation, which would have reduced carbon emissions but encountered wide opposition among Republican lawmakers and some Democrats.

When Obama took office in January 2009, hopes were high for those who wanted to see the U.S. pass legislation to limit carbon emissions.

With Democrats in control of the House and the Copenhagen climate conference coming up, it seemed liked the pieces were in place for a climate bill which would put the U.S. in a leadership position in reducing global carbon emissions.

But a brutal partisan battle over healthcare reform, a financial reform package that was only passed this month, and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – and the ensuing legislation to guarantee payments from BP – have all pushed the climate bill further down the road.

House and Senate Democrats are expected to suffer significant losses in the upcoming November elections which will add to the White House’s difficulty in passing a climate bill in 2011.

Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, expressed disappointment with Reid’s announcement and emphasised that the Senate’s failure to address climate change could mean that those seeking an effective climate bill will be fighting an uphill battle next year.

“To pass legislation, you need to move bills through both houses of Congress. The House of Representatives has already cast a clear, solid vote on this. If the Senate fails to act now, all that hard work will have been wasted and we’ll have to start from scratch next year with a new Congress likely to be less inclined to act responsibly,” wrote Krupp on his blog.

“Senate inaction will have very serious consequences for our environment, our economy, and, ultimately, our entire civilization,” he warned.

The inability of Democrats in Washington to pass a climate bill will likely have broad implications for the international momentum to pass climate change legislation.

Already, the upcoming meeting of international negotiators in Cancun, in November, is being described as an increasingly unlikely venue for the signing of an international climate agreement.

“Cap-and-trade legislation aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions appears to be dead in this Congress. Even a moderately ambitious alternative has been shelved until later this year at the earliest,” wrote Michael A. Levi, director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The biggest implication is that the United States has once again failed to confront its climate problems. But there is another: the United States is in for a rocky time in international climate diplomacy,” he continued.

Representatives from developing nations, which included ministers from Brazil, South Africa, India and China, currently meeting in Rio de Janeiro said on Monday that developed countries haven’t done enough to battle climate change.

In the past the group – which had joined the U.S. in forming the Copenhagen Accord -had said that developed nations should submit emissions reduction targets for 2020 and participate in national emission curbing legislation.

If, as seems to be the case, a climate change bill is not brought up in the Senate before the August recess, it is unlikely that developing countries can expect a definitive climate agreement in Cancun in November.

Environmental NGOs here in Washington have been loudly claiming that the opportunity is not yet gone for a climate bill this year and that the costs of inaction are too high to accept.

“It’s time for all of U.S. – politicians, business leaders and environmentalists – to put wishful thinking aside, establish realistic goals and develop a consensus for legislation that can be passed this year,” wrote president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change Eileen Claussen and Duke Energy chair Jim Rogers in an op-ed for Politico on Friday.

“Current clean energy and climate legislation is not an all- or-nothing proposition. It’s a work in progress that can begin our transition to a clean energy future. We need to look past our differences and act where there is agreement,” they concluded.

But on Monday, warnings from developing countries coming from Rio de Janeiro suggested that the rest of the world was beginning to seriously doubt the Obama administration’s ability to pass a climate bill by November.

“If by the time we get to Cancun (U.S. senators) still have not completed the legislation then clearly we will get less than a legally binding outcome,” Buyelwa Sonjica, South Africa’s Water and Environment Affairs minister, said in an interview with Reuters.

“For us that is a concern, and we’re very realistic about the fact that we may not” complete a legally binding accord, she said.

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