CANCUN, Mexico — U.S. negotiators came into the U.N. global warming summit with a weak hand but a bold move: a pledge that Congress and the president will enact climate change legislation well before the decade is through.
It’s a promise that the rest of the world has seen the United States make—and break—time and again. At the 1997 Kyoto summit, then-Vice President Al Gore made the same pledge—even as the Senate passed a resolution refusing to ratify the Kyoto treaty. At last year’s summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, President Obama declared that the United States would lead the way in forging a treaty to replace Kyoto, starting with action at home. But even with a Democratic Congress, the climate bill went down in flames. And now, with a new Republican House, action on climate—and, very likely, on major clean energy initiatives—seems doomed for at least two years.
All sides agree this has put the United States in an extremely difficult position in these talks.
“The near-term situation in the U.S. is bad and you can’t sugarcoat that. We don’t have legislation coming any time soon. It’s a very difficult situation for the U.S. in negotiations right now to suggest that that’s possible in the near term,” said Jennifer Haverkamp, who is leading the Cancun team for the Environmental Defense Fund, an influential advocacy group.
But State Department negotiators say that despite the failure of the legislation, they are standing by the U.S. pledge in Copenhagen, under which the country will enact policies to slash greenhouse gas pollution 17 percent by 2020.
In the absence of legislation, the executive branch has taken action, authorizing the Environmental Protection Agency to start regulating greenhouse emissions from power plants and factories next year. Over talks in the next two weeks, U.S. negotiators will point to the EPA rules and other executive actions, such as a recent rule tightening tailpipe emissions standards. But first and foremost, the U.S. will hammer home the pledge that Congress will pass a bill.
“I think it is remarkably premature for people to say, nine months after you made it, when your first efforts to make legislation move did not succeed, you think that you have to back away,” said Jonathan Pershing, a chief U.S. climate negotiator. “We are not. The president was explicit. We continue to think legislation is the right approach. We think it may not necessarily be only comprehensive legislation, but perhaps elements in energy or elements in other environmental activities that could also move us in that direction.’”
But a closer look at what the United States has committed to shows that in order to meet that promise, America would still have to enact a cap-and-trade law—and probably sooner rather than later. That’s because the United States has also pledged to lead the way in mobilizing $100 billion annually in funding from rich countries to poor countries in order to adapt to the coming ravages of climate changes, such as increased floods, droughts, and rising sea levels. The United States is expected to kick in about 20 percent of that amount. And global financial experts agree that the only way the money will move is through some kind of carbon market, set in place by a cap-and-trade plan—a term that has become poison in U.S. politics. Policy experts also point out that in order for the money to move by 2020, the legislation would have to pass Congress as soon as 2014 or 2015—a much steeper political lift.
Other nations say that the State Department’s bold move has convinced them of the administration’s sincerity—but not of Congress’ ability to follow through.
“Even in China, people don’t expect climate (change legislation) to get passed; they understand that Obama wanted to do this but couldn’t get it through,” said Alvin Lin, the director of the energy and climate program in the Beijing office of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “China would like to see the U.S. do more. … There is an understanding within China that the administration wants to do this and will maintain momentum.”
“At the moment, we believe the Obama administration that they are going to get this through,” said Artur Runge-Metger, chief climate negotiator for the European Union, told National Journal.
“Of course, we have our questions on what will be feasible and possible.”
Back in Washington, a key senator said it was appropriate for negotiators to tell the rest of the world that Congress would act in a general way on climate and clean energy — but recoiled at references to cap-and-trade.
“The president is going to be reasonable. He is going to hit singles, as he said, and before the oil spill things were working pretty well in terms of nuclear power,” said South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was the only GOP backer of the climate bill that moved through the Senate this year.
“I think the idea of hitting singles on energy is probably the right approach.”
But asked about the idea that the United States may pledge, without saying so explicitly, to enact a cap-and-trade law, Graham laughed, and said, “How are they going to do that?”
Follow Coral Davenport's Cancun Insider blog at http://climate.nationaljournal.com/.