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?

Long, Hot Summer for Climate Bill

capitoldome_hr_blogAs California’s Barbara Boxer opened Senate hearings on the Waxman-Markey climate bill today, her committee was urged by Republicans not to “rush through this thing.” At this point there seems to be little danger of that.

Having squeaked through the House by the thinnest of margins, the American Clean Energy and Security Act is facing a gantlet of Senate committees that will likely spend most of the summer dissecting the 1400-page beast.

Boxer’s Environmental and Public Woks Committee heard testimony today, with Finance and Foreign Relations scheduled to have their whack at it tomorrow. During the latter, expect to hear gruesome details about Europe’s experiment with cap & trade, which has been fraught with problems. Peter Fairley recently provided an excellent overview of those pitfalls in MIT’s Technology Review. Fairley writes that in its current form, the Waxman bill is destined to hit many of the same potholes.

During today’s morning session, members of the Energy committee heard from several cabinet-level officials, including Department of Energy Secretary Steve Chu, who fielded numerous questions on the role of nuclear power in the nation’s energy future. While California still has in place a legislated moratorium on new nuclear plants, Chu assured committee members that restarting the nuclear industry is a “very important factor” in the low-carbon future and that faces “no reluctance” from him.
Chu said his department is “pushing as hard as we can” to provide loan guarantees for new plant construction (most of which is planned for the southeastern U.S.). The former head of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab said that the U.S. has lost the lead on nuclear technology and “should get it back.”

(We’ll look at the prospects for that in a Climate Watch radio feature, scheduled to air on the August 24th broadcast of KQED’s Quest radio series.)

Committee Republicans repeated concerns about potential job losses and the danger of “carbon leakage,” wonk-speak for when production moves overseas to countries where it creates more greenhouse gas emissions than it would here.

As in the House floor debate, Republicans recalled a comment made by then-candidate Barack Obama to the San Francisco Chronicle in January of last year, that electricity rates would “necessarily skyrocket” under cap-and-trade. David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council countered that the act would also offer some savings; that households could see “up to $14 per month” in savings from transportation efficiencies.

Down to the Wire: House Passes Climate Bill

After a long day of debate, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Waxman-Markey climate bill, by a narrow vote of 219-212. The bill now goes to the Senate.

President Obama reportedly changed the topic of his weekly address, in order to respond to the landmark bill’s passage.

Toward the end of the day-long floor debate, Ohio Republican John Boehner railed against a “manager’s amendment” that was “dropped at 3:09 a.m.,” as he reminded members numerous times. The 309-page amendment spelled out some of the regulatory architecture of the proposed law, and Boehner spent more than an hour going through it nearly page-by-page, detailing how the law would reach into local governments, private homes, homeowners’ associations and mortgage markets.

In urging her Democratic colleagues to vote in favor of the measure, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised that passage would mean “four things: jobs, jobs, jobs and jobs.” But Republicans repeatedly warned that the law would cost “2.5 million jobs” every year, for the next decade and highlighted conflicting estimates of the cost per household (Projections by the EPA and Congressional Budget Office put the number at between $140 and $175 per year, while House Republicans insisted that the real price would be many times that).

At times the House floor sounded more like the British Parliament in decorum. A Republican amendment known as the “New Manhattan Project” alternative to the bill was defeated 256-172. That proposal would have largely substituted the Waxman bill’s web of regulation with incentives for development of new energy sources.

One thing that both parties seemed to agree on was that the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 is one of the most sweeping pieces of legislation ever to come before Congress. The Waxman bill ballooned to more than 1200 pages by the final vote.