- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 29, 2006

In previous years, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change earlier this month would have been a non-event, at least as far as the vast majority of Americans are concerned. And in terms of its practical output, the meetings in Nairobi, Kenya lived up to this lofty historical standard.

But while the session failed to achieve one of its key goals, establishing a time frame for setting future greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, its context appears to have whetted the appetite of a global environmental movement hungry to bring the United States into the Kyoto Protocol or another binding international system of targets and timetables. A key element of that context was the previous week’s elections in the United States, which produced a tasty and long-awaited appetizer — a Democrat-controlled Congress. Nevertheless, anyone hoping to see Washington agree to binding limits on emissions is likely to leave the table unsatisfied.

A letter to President Bush from Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman, Barbara Boxer and Joseph Lieberman provoked particular excitement at the international gathering. In the letter, the incoming chairs of the Senate’s Energy, Environment, Homeland Security and Government Affairs committees announced their intention to establish mandatory limits on greenhouse gases in the United States. The three will also likely hold high-profile hearings on the topic — a major change from the Republican Congress. And pressure is growing outside of Washington too, not least in California, where newly re-elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has given considerable attention to climate change, including through high-profile engagement with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Mr. Bush is clearly not ignorant of the growing political importance of the climate issue — but just as clearly has his own views on how to address it. During his conciliatory post election press conference, Mr. Bush twice referred to energy policy, rather than climate, as an area in which he expected to work with congressional Democrats. Since then, other White House officials have repeated and expanded this theme while focusing predominantly on policies to reduce American dependence on imported oil through incentives to encourage the use of alternative fuels. Despite a sharp drop in prices after months of three-dollar-a-gallon gasoline, this issue still resonates with voters (in part because it is tied to U.S. engagement in the Middle East, including Iraq) — and the use of ethanol and other biofuels could reduce America’s net greenhouse-gas emissions too.

Interestingly, a number of powerful Democrats may not object to Mr. Bush’s approach. In key swing states such as Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, some will likely fear that the call for targets and timetables to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions could put excessive pressure on struggling U.S. automakers and the coal industry — and, in turn, on union members worried about their jobs.

So, what to expect? First and foremost, do not expect any move back into negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol or another Kyoto-style international agreement between now and 2008. Domestically oriented legislation establishing binding targets and timetables is similarly quite unlikely during this period, though there is some talk of a mandatory carbon intensity target — limiting emissions per unit of gross domestic product — an approach proposed by the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy that builds on the voluntary metric the administration already uses as a centerpiece of its domestic climate policies.

The incoming Senate will not be so different from the Senate that rejected the premise of Kyoto in 1997. And even if the new Democratic majority were fully committed to the Kyoto approach, which it is unlikely to be, a 51-vote majority is simply insufficient to advance what would surely be controversial legislation. Senate Democrats can only get the 60 votes necessary to defeat a filibuster with the full support of their own caucus and significant support from Republicans. In fact, the post election balance of power could give Republican moderates in the Senate a major role in shaping the agenda. Sen. John McCain, who has longstanding interest in the climate issue and has worked closely with Mr. Lieberman, could be especially important.

The Bush administration has an opportunity — and, in fact, a need — to work with the Congress to identify pragmatic solutions that address both energy security and greenhouse-gas emissions. But policies to reduce emissions will be linked to energy policy and may be more a welcome by-product of those efforts than a policy-making focus in their own right. Internationally, the focus will likely remain on scientific and technical collaboration to develop and deploy cleaner energy sources.

The key in developing bipartisan (and therefore successful) legislation on climate change will be to take a pragmatic approach, driven by new technologies and incentives, that does not impose an undue economic burden. Anything else will mean more hot air.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Nixon Center and associate publisher of the National Interest. Vaughan C. Turekian is chief international officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They served together as advisers to the undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs during the Bush administration.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide