First Things First: The White House, senators, businesses, environmental NGOs, lobbying groups, and the international community conspired this week to shred any discernible central narrative in the climate story. While this situation might be easily recognized as a normal state of affairs–coming after the singular focus on Copenhagen, and then the singular focus on the holiday break–the diversity and scale of disagreements over how to respond to climate risk are striking. (Caveat: News media are biased toward reporting conflict.)
China, India, Brazil, and South Africa (the BASIC bloc) plan to meet in New Delhi this month, ahead of the Jan. 31 deadline to submit their “mitigating actions” to the U.N. climate change secretariat. The Obama administration and key senators reiterated their support for comprehensive legislation to set a market price for industrial dumping of carbon dioxide emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency found itself the target of criticism from the American Farm Bureau Federation over its new carbon-dioxide regulations. North Dakota is threatening to sue Minnesota over the latter’s new climate policy.
Looking forward to Copenhagen was more fun than looking back is. And looking forward to Cancun (!) isn’t necessarily something everyone is looking forward to. Oh, how to make sense of it all?
“Strategy” Session: Good questions came in after last week’s ruminations, none more fundamental than this: What does “climate strategy” mean after Copenhagen? Let’s take a look.
Abroad: Judging by the proliferation of tactical and other variety disputes this week, it’s clear that there is no dominant strategy at the moment. The UNFCC process had the veneer of dominance, but behind that it seems like it’s just every carbon-polluting entity for itself. What we’re looking at now is something of a reversion to (or progression toward!) the marketplace of ideas, where plans to address climate change will compete for attention from the politicians and policymakers who decide on courses of action.
Say what you want about the Copenhagen Accord hammered out by the BASIC countries and the U.S.: It’s organic and lays bare observations whispered about for some time. Robert Stavins of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs writes, “The two weeks of COP-15 illustrated four specific problems, most of which were apparent long before the Copenhagen meetings.”
A snub to the European Union, the Accord was produced by a small group of nations self-selecting, on the spot, based on geopolitics and economic scale and perceived vulnerability. Perhaps this is a signal that the new strategy is “anyone who can work together should work together.” Perhaps this is a signal that China has enough influence to almost unilaterally dictate the terms of international agreement. The confusion is epitomized by U.S. deputy special envoy Jonathan Pershing and U.K. Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband:
Pershing: “It is impossible to imagine a global agreement in place that doesn’t essentially have a global buy-in. There aren’t other institutions beside the UN that have that… We are going to have a very, very difficult time moving forward and it will be a combination of small and larger processes.”
Miliband: “I am confident we can get an agreement as we have made a lot of progress over the last year… We are trying to get consensus from 192 countries from very different places to be part of an agreement. That is tough and that’s what Copenhagen showed.”
At Home: This week’s Senate intrigue concerned whether legislators might scoop the cap-and-trade system out of climate legislation and run with a scaled-down energy bill. Conflict-monger Politico glazes over the dispute and the Wall Street Journal‘s Environmental Capital blog concludes its “Scrap-and-Trade” post by saying that “[t]here’s reason to think a clean-energy future could still be in the offing even if Congress does take the path of least resistance and scraps plans for cap-and-trade this year.”
The WSJ article looks at the Senate, but just down the street the EPA advances its plans to regulate carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. The farm lobby’s vocal opposition was met by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is threatening a lawsuit in language less incendiary than its call for climate science hearings last August. States are asking for more time and small businesses are opposing the policy. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). put off introduction of an amendment that would nix the EPA’s regulation of carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. The move came after the Washington Post reported that two lobbyists “helped craft” the measure.
Conventional wisdom holds that failure in the U.N. arena and potential failure on Capitol Hill will push market-based program out to the states. But if cash-strapped California is any indication, a cold economy can cool interest in climate policy. The LA Times reports a decline in public interest in air pollution and related issues. Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has suggested the state hold off on implementing its new rules on the emission of heat-trapping gases. So much for carbon-credit auctions on eBay…
The first big legal skirmish over a climate law could come between North Dakota and Minnesota. The latter has put in place regulations that could raise the cost of electricity in that state–even electrons transmitted from neighboring North Dakota. N.D. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem threatened in late December to file a lawsuit, probably over the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause. [Nicholas Institute Director Tim Profeta has written about the issues involved in the Environmental Law Reporter. Pdf here.]
Mailbag (Send Your Questions Here!): Another reader asked last week, Can the USCAP model apply to the global climate framework? How do boundary-spanning entities like leading NGOs, global business, and religious communities engage in a meaningful, constructive way?
Respondents essentially answered the question with another question: How has USCAP’s position emerged and evolved in the domestic debate? The US Climate Action Partnership is the group of more than two dozen companies and several environmental NGOs. A year ago USCAP released an influential blueprint for climate legislation, which was largely adopted by Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in what became the House climate bill. However, as debate over legislative details has become higher-pitched, there’s no public indication that USCAP ever re-reached its initial escape velocity.
A USCAP-like group focused on an international climate agreement would likely experience similar pressures. The big ideas are hard, but easier than the fine print. Another issue appears to be the structure of the UNFCC events itself, which makes it difficult or impossible for corporations to register and take part. The Major Economies Forum may be a more receptive place for businesses who want to register their voices.
The Haitian Earthquake: There’s no direct tie-in to this week’s tragedy, except this: The climate debates are largely driven by our drives for lasting security and prosperity, and the avoidance of human suffering.