Copenhagen’s Fallout: Senate Drops Climate Action From Energy Bill

Senate Drops Climate From Energy Bill

Until December 2009, the idea of acting to cool the Earth was on a roll. High points included 2007 Nobel Prizes for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s breakthrough science and for Al Gore’s astonishing work to elevate global warming to an international priority, They also included Barack Obama’s winning 2008 presidential election, and the formation of global online grassroots activism led by  350.org and TckTckTck, a project of the Global Campaign For Climate Action.

But that month more than 100 heads of state gathered at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen and failed to reach agreement on binding international measures to limit carbon emissions and secure the planet’s safety. Nowhere has the fallout from Copenhagen’s grim result been more visible than in the U.S. Senate.

Today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (in pix above with Sen. Kerry on left, and Carol Browner) emerged from a meeting with Democratic colleagues and announced that the new comprehensive climate and energy bill he promised last week would not include specific measures to limit emissions that are warming the Earth.

A much less ambitious bill will be introduced next week, said Sen. Reid, that focuses on a response to the BP Gulf disaster, improvements to energy efficiency, converting vehicle fleets to natural gas, and other narrower energy measures.

The introduction of such a bill would appear to have the effect of squandering the work of the House, which passed a cap-and-trade bill in June 2009 that set a national cap on carbon emissions and required companies to have permits for such emissions. It also would appear, if political polls are accurately forecasting severe Democratic losses in the fall, to kill any chance of capping carbon emissions in this Congress, the next, or even over the next decade.

For the foreseeable future climate action in the U.S. will be ad-hoc, piecemeal, uncoordinated, and not nearly as effective as it could be with a comprehensive legislative approach. If warming temperatures, failing industries, economic malaise, and energy insecurity is your idea of a good time, then this era of American inaction is just what the doctor ordered.

Weeks Of Work By Climate Activists
It’s not that people aren’t trying. The Senate decision to focus the new bill solely on energy came after weeks of intensive work by climate advocates to build a case for emissions limits in and outside Washington, organizing demonstrations at the grassroots, meeting with Senate staff, and raising the issue in the media. Since May, following the explosion and oil blowout in the Gulf, President Barack Obama also had campaigned for climate action in meetings with Senators of both parties, in public appearances outside Washington, and in a televised Oval Office address in June during which he called for a new “national mission” to achieve energy independence and safeguard the environment.

The effort, though, was impeded by opposition messages that asserted, with scant basis in fact, that limiting carbon emissions would severely raise energy prices and living costs, and by the prevailing politics of stasis on climate issues that define the era. Lawmakers in Australia, Japan, and Canada are having similar difficulties getting strong climate bills approved. The Copenhagen summit was a study in how pride and posturing trumped economic and ecological urgency.

“Many of us want to do a thorough comprehensive bill that creates jobs, breaks our addiction to foreign oil, and curbs pollution,” said Sen. Reid at a hastily called news conference today.  “Unfortunately at this time we don’t have a single Republican to work with in achieving this goal. For me it’s terribly disappointing and it’s also very dangerous.”

In The Face Of Record Heat, No Action
Indeed, Sen. Reid’s announcement came the same week that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that 2010 is the hottest year on record, and on the same day that China said it would enact domestic carbon trading programs starting next year to help meet its target of reducing the nation’s carbon pollution.

“It should be a wake-up call that the same day Republican opposition kills a carbon price in the Senate, China announces it will put a price on carbon in 2011,” Joshua Freed, the director of clean energy program at the Third Way, a centrist think tank, told the Washington Post.

Appearing at the news conference with Sen. Reid was Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is widely regarded as the Senate’s most important advocate for reducing carbon emissions. Sen. Kerry promised to keep trying to find an opening to introduce and pass climate legislation in the Senate. “It’s not dying. It’s not going away,” he said. “We’re going to try our best to find a way to do it in the next few weeks. If we can’t do it in the next weeks, we’ll do something that begins to do something responsibly in the short term. But this will stay out there, and we’ll be working on it. We’ll be asking you to talk to your senators and move them to understand why we have to get this done.”

President Obama dispatched Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change, to join Senators Reid and Kerry in making the announcement. Her assessment of a large portion of the problem was characteristically direct and unvarnished: “”As we stand here today we don’t have one Republican vote,” she said.

Democrats Not United in Support, Republicans United Against
Still, neither Reid nor Kerry were able to marshal consistent support from Democrats either. New West Virginia Democratic Senator Carte Goodwin, who this month replaced the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, announced even before he arrived in Washington that he would not support measures to limit carbon emissions. Other Democrats, most notably Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, also periodically expressed opposition.

Advocates of climate action expressed equal measures of frustration and resolve to keep trying today. “It’s deeply disappointing that Big Oil, Dirty Coal and their allies in Congress continue to stand in the way of creating a clean energy economy that creates jobs, makes America more energy independent and protects the planet,” said Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters. “The twin challenges of building a clean energy economy and addressing global warming are too important to fail.  The fight to create new clean energy jobs and solve the climate crisis will continue — in this Congress, in the states and at the EPA.”

“Due to Republican leaders inaction,” said Daniel J. Weiss, the director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, “China will continue to expand its clean energy industry and jobs. We will spend $1 billion each day on foreign oil. And power plants will spew billions of tons of pollution.”

— Keith Schneider

When It Comes to Climate and Clean Energy, “Just Say No” Has Become Too Popular

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Monday, in the parlance of Washington policy and journalism, was scheduled to be a potential day of breakthrough in the work to achieve action on the warming climate. Senators John Kerry (Mass.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.) had announced that they’d come to consensus on what a bipartisan energy and climate policy fit for the 21st century looked like. The results were to be unveiled at a news briefing that had global import.

Instead nothing happened. It was like reeling in a sailfish, all fight and silvery splash, only to have the beast die on the way into the boat.

This is the third time in five months that that I’ve been involved in climate and clean energy campaigns that culminated in less than they promised. “Just say no” is emerging as a far easier answer than saying yes to progress.

In Copenhagen in December, nearly 200 nations gathered at the largest summit ever with the express purpose of reaching agreement on a climate treaty. Instead what they came up with was a novel accord that points in the right direction and may not achieve more than that.

In Traverse City, a small utility’s bid to acquire 30 percent of its energy from local renewable resources, including a state-of-the-art clean right-sized clean burning 10 mw wood biomass plant, generated such fierce hyperbole about unfounded risks among some environmentalists that you’d have thought the utility was proposing a 100-acre toxic waste site for the middle of town. The local push back, led by a grassroots environmental group, is consistent with similar resistance in 30 other states to proposals for new wind, solar, geothermal, wood biomass, and transmission lines. This week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is expected to decide on a big offshore wind farm in Massachusetts that has been the focus on a popular opposition campaign. The clean energy transition may not be televised.

Now comes the Senate’s attempt to push through a climate and energy bill, which over the weekend got washed up on the shoals of partisanship, immigration policy, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s re-election, and the powerful climate change-denying communications machine operated by America’s fossil fuel collective.

Today, Senator Reid retreated just a bit and sought to assure his Democratic and Republican colleagues that debate on the climate and energy bill would come before debate on the immigration bill. That makes sense since there is no immigration bill to debate in the Senate. But Graham, a very lonely Republican in the climate and clean energy space, has not yet indicated whether he’s ready to participate in introducing the ready-to-go energy bill that he’s spent months shaping with Senators Kerry and Lieberman.

The politics of stasis — of doing nothing — is brought action on climate change to a crawl, and that may be kind. The public will to act, to reduce emissions of carbon, to provide for the safety of the planet and all its inhabitants, is just not apparent in the United States, or in much of the rest of the developed world.

Clearly, a new operating program is needed politically and a new communications frame and strategy needs to be developed. Today the Environmental Protection Agency made public a new report on climate change effects that are getting worse:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are increasing. Between 1990 and 2008, there has been about a 14 percent increase in emissions in the United States.
  • Average temperatures are rising. Seven of the top 10 warmest years on record for the continental United States have occurred since 1990.
  • Tropical cyclone intensity has increased in recent decades. Six of the 10 most active hurricane seasons have occurred since the mid-1990s.
  • Sea levels are rising. From 1993 to 2008, sea level rose twice as fast as the long-term trend.
  • Glaciers are melting. Loss of glacier volume appears to have accelerated over the last decade.
  • The frequency of heat waves has risen steadily since the 1960s. The percentage of the U.S. population impacted by heat waves has also increased.

Still, people in the United States aren’t much concerned. They are clearly indicating,  in grassroots fights and in support for lawmakers who counsel to do nothing, that they are satisfied with the way things are. That is a dangerous sentiment in an unsettled world making powerful and swift transitions in every important sector — the economy, markets, the environment, energy, population, and competition for resources.

— Keith Schneider

Across the Big Pond Bonn Climate Negotiators

Today diplomats and climate action specialists met in Bonn for the first international climate meeting since the Copenhagen summit in December. April in fact marks the start of an intensifying schedule of global negotiating sessions on climate action, and on the international economy.

NGO climate leaders from USCAN and our member organizations are in Bonn. Among the many things they are doing is to help make the case to delegates that at the very moment that the climate crisis and the global economic crisis have collided there are ready steps to solve both.

Over 100 nations that associated themselves with the Copenhagen Accord have already agreed to investing substantial sums in international finance to help developing nations make the transition to a low-carbon economy and have committed to emissions limits to hold the rise in average global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius. Also G-20 nations agreed to end subsidies for fossil fuel development at the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh last year.

There will be more opportunity in the coming weeks for NGO experts to convince global leaders. On April 18, the Obama administration hosts the two-day Major Economies Forum in Washington. Five days later finance ministers meet in Washington to decide priorities and the agenda for the G-20 meeting in Toronto. In late November, Cancun, Mexico hosts the 16th UN climate conference. The idea that ties them all together is that the threatened global environment and the frayed global economy share a common source: profligate use of increasingly expensive and polluting fossil fuel. The transition to a cleaner, low-carbon economy not only reduces the climate risk, it also invites innovation, new tools and practices, and many more new jobs.

The focus of the Bonn meeting, which ends on Sunday, is process and procedure. The meeting has the important task of deciding meetings, priorities, and dates for the 2010 global climate negotiations calendar. Delegates also are faced with a difficult diplomatic puzzle left over from Copenhagen. How can the agreements outlined in the Copenhagen Accord, which some nations dislike, merge with the ornate UNFCCC process and framework, which is supported by nearly 200 nations?

Also this week, a group of 3,000 national and grassroots companies – among them Google, Nike, and Timberland – launched a new national advertising campaign calling for swift action on energy and climate legislation. The ads, which are appearing in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Carolina and Florida anticipate the introduction this month of climate and energy legislation in the Senate, and urge Congress to enact a bipartisan bill that “increases our security and limits emissions, as it preserves and creates jobs.”