Not With a Bang, But…

This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper. –T.S. Eliot

With the President headed for Mexico for a two-day summit, I was struck last week by the juxtaposition of two headlines that jumped out of a daily environmental news digest.

One headline read: “MEXICO AIMS TO BRING CO2 CUT PLAN TO CLIMATE TALKS.” The other, just above it, referring to similar efforts in this country, read: “CLIMATE BILL MAY FALL BY THE WAYSIDE.”

“With the fight over health care reform absorbing all the bandwidth on Capitol Hill,” Lisa Lerer wrote for Politico, “Democrats fear a major climate change bill may be left on the cutting-room floor this year.”

Granted, Mexico’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is reportedly about 2%, or a tenth of the U.S. contribution, so one might argue that there’s a lesser job to do there. But with less than four months remaining before the next major U.N. climate conference, it raises the grim prospect that while other nations press on, the U.S. could arrive in Copenhagen empty-handed, which is to say without meaningful carbon legislation to show.

At the same time last week, the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum called for a 50/50 commitment from developed nations; a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Many of those island nations are on the hot seat as rising seas levels could make them among the first to lose substantial real estate before the end of this century.

At his first climate summit for governors last fall, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced a video from then President-elect Obama, in which he promised that his presidency would “mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change.”

Praising the governors in attendance for their own climate initiatives, the newly elected President declared that “Too often Washington has failed to show the same kind of leadership. That will change when I take office.”

Of course “Washington” includes Congress, which is still dithering over the major carbon emissions bill championed by the new President. It squeaked through the House by nine votes and now looms as a 1,400-page pig that the Senate python will attempt to digest or regurgitate. Either way, what comes out is unlikely to closely resemble what went in.

Meanwhile the whole cap-and-trade concept has been coming under increasing scrutiny and skepticism. Last month, when the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California polled Californians on the subject, more respondents favored an out-and-out carbon tax than cap-and-trade (56% to 49%). The Western Climate Initiative, a regional cap-and-trade pact that is a keystone of California’s climate strategy, AB 32, remains in limbo while western legislatures wait on Congress.

So when the Governor convenes his second climate summit in L.A. next month, billed optimistically as “The Road to Copenhagen,” he and his fellow “subnational leaders” (Wisconsin, Michigan & Connecticut governors are currently signed up) may find that the ball is still in their court. According to a news release from the Governor’s office, “climate leaders from around the world will come together and collaborate on efforts to further the global fight against climate change.”

They’ll do it with the same question on the table as last year: Can they count on Washington to take up the reins?