- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2010


As the world community descends on Cancun, Mexico, for the annual and increasingly meaning less United Nations global climate conference, it is difficult to argue that these meetings have been anything short of an embarrassment for the past two American administrations. Republican gains in the congressional elections will only further constrain the Obama administration in seeking an international deal.

Nevertheless, there is an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats who worry about climate change to make a difference, without “cap-and-trade” or other mandatory emissions limits.

Looking back, the Bush administration’s clumsy approach to the Kyoto Protocol - while well-grounded in policy realities - dogged it internationally from the start, putting the administration continuously on the defensive. However, if the Bush administration sacrificed its global image by losing the style battle, the Obama administration one-upped it by losing in both style and substance and ultimately sacrificing not only prestige, but influence. Making the cardinal mistake of believing its own press releases, the administration failed to recognize that a binding treaty limiting U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions was dead on arrival, especially in the absence of domestic legislation that the White House couldn’t secure.

So where should the administration and the newly minted Republican House majority go from here?

For its part, the Obama administration should radically change its goals for and approach to this and future global climate summits.

Though it will be painful for the administration, U.S. officials should use the formal and informal sessions and meetings to make clear the reality that the United States will not sign on to any global agreement constraining carbon in the foreseeable future and should seek other results-driven and not treaty-based approaches to reducing emissions.

The administration likely will be tempted to explain the situation by pointing to what it might believe is a temporary rightward lurch in the new Congress. That would be an upside-down interpretation of the November elections, which are not the cause of U.S. reluctance to accept mandatory limits on carbon but, on the contrary, are a reflection of broad political opposition to cap-and-trade legislation, health care reform and other administration goals that many voters feared would increase the size and cost of government. And almost every political analysis suggests that large Democratic majorities in the treaty-ratifying Senate are even less likely with the 2012 election.

Domestically, climate change faces an even bigger challenge - federally mandated emission caps are a non-starter. In addition, unlike during the Bush administration, the newly empowered Republicans are unlikely to be enthusiastic about anything leading to new spending, believing they have a strong voter mandate to cut spending in a country facing mounting and unsustainable debt.

But there are a few key ways to address energy and climate change while adhering to conservative principles regarding federal spending.

First, congressional Republicans could focus early budget efforts on mandating government cost savings through increased energy efficiency. While Republicans are looking at ways to decrease the government’s economic footprint, they should not neglect its carbon footprint.

Electricity consumption for government offices and fuel consumption by government vehicles would be a good place to start, and some groundwork already exists in both areas.

Second, congressional Republicans should thoroughly assess federal energy subsidies with an eye to reducing or eliminating them over time.

Republicans also should press the administration to adjust or eliminate unnecessary regulations in the energy sector. Burdensome regulations often needlessly increase energy production costs - with high costs later becoming an argument for subsidies. Why make it more expensive to build nuclear power plants, for example, and then provide tax credits to fix the problem?

Third, Congress should act on President Obama’s call to make the research-and-development tax credit permanent, especially in areas that can lead to the discovery and development of new energy sources. Tax credits cost taxpayers and should not be provided lightly. But investment in energy research can make a major contribution to economic growth by stimulating the private sector and also strengthen America’s future competitiveness and security.

Finally, Republicans should act at the state level, where they also made considerable electoral gains. Republican governors and state legislators would do well to look at energy consumption by state governments, seeking new ways to increase efficiency and reduce carbon emissions. Groups like the Republican Governors Association could help ensure that the best ideas discovered at the state level are disseminated nationally and provided as models for federal action.

Many Republicans might be pleased with the now-all-but-sure defeat of cap-and-trade legislation - and the prospects for a binding international treaty in Cancun and beyond - as a victory for conservative principles. But to succeed long-term, both as a philosophy and in attracting public support, conservatism will have to move beyond defeating ineffective policies to promote its own positive policy proposals to address American problems as well as global problems like climate change that can significantly affect the United States.

Vaughan Turekian is chief international officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Nixon Center. They both addressed climate issues as advisers to the undersecretary of state for global affairs during the George W. Bush administration.

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