They will not take office until January, but the outcome of yesterday’s election is bound to damage the credibility of the U.S. delegation that will participate next month in Cancun in the U.N. Climate Change conference, dimming any hopes that the United States can provide any leadership there on this global issue.
“We’re already in a bad place diplomatically on environmental issues going into Cancun, and now the U.S. can’t bring anything to the table substantive enough to amount to leadership,’’ according to Mark Hopkins, the Director for International Energy Efficiency at the U.N. Foundation, a Washington-based charity whose agenda includes clean energy advocacy.
This year the Obama administration failed to pass a U.S. cap-and-trade system to cut carbon emissions and that initiative will not be resuscitated, the President indicated in a post-election press conference Wednesday. As Hopkins explains, many newly elected Congress people view cap-and-trade as simply a “backdoor tax,” a view that reflects their anti-tax platform and also doubts among some of them about the validity of the climate change issue.
Even before the election, the Obama administration had started working around the Congressional deadlock on climate issues by encouraging a more pro-active role for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take regulatory action to curb carbon emissions.
This executive-branch tactic will probably arouse opposition in the new Republican-controlled House of Representatives, according to analysts. This chamber of Congress has authority over government spending and can target and cut EPA budget items that arouse ire among Republicans, who will now take over all the House committee chairmanships. “The President can be counted on to push back,” Hopkins said. But the issue risks being swamped from public view by larger confrontations on public spending, taxes and health care and other headline campaign issues that will command attention in Washington starting today.
A bright spot in environmentalists’ view was the survival of California’s path-breaking legislation imposing a schedule of mounting carbon taxes to cut emissions drastically by 2020.
The 2006 law has made California the vanguard State in opposition to global warming. But it could have been overturned by a referendum-type measure included on yesterday’s California ballot, titled Proposition 23, which would have imposed an indefinite standstill on the new requirements for cleaner energy. If it had passed, the tougher standards could only have come into effect after unemployment in California – now the nation’s highest at 12.5 percent -- had dropped to 5.5 percent for a year.
“Prop 23” was defeated despite strongly support for the freeze by major oil companies so California can proceed with its plan. Pioneered by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (who was barred from re-election by term limits), the program can expect a strong follow-through by newly-elected Governor Jerry Brown and his Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom. Both are Democrats and both campaigned hard to defeat Prop 23 and preserve California’s position as a State laboratory for new practices that might someday be adopted nationwide.
In Europe, environmentalists have worked closely with the leadership in California in using its initiative to build stricter global standards.
The intensity of the issue in California was a contrast to the general absence around the country of environmental debate in Congressional races. The outgoing Democrat-controlled Congress failed to pass proposed legislation on climate change and on energy, mainly because law-makers were so deeply divided first on healthcare reform and then on economic issues generally.
Joblessness and other fears about the economy have also driven environmental issues down the agenda in public opinion, too. Recent polls show barely five percent of Americans citing climate change among their top national priorities. A similar trend is at work in Europe: the most recent polling shows only 20 percent of Europeans listing this threat as a top priority.
A factor in this shift seems to be growing skepticism among much of the public about the causes of climate change: particularly in America, more people are now telling pollsters that they doubt climate change is man-made (and therefore susceptible to remedy by human action).
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to new actions from Washington is the “gridlock” that has stemmed from the uncompromising clash between Obama and his Democratic followers in Congress and the Republican minority in Congress. It is unclear whether the election, by giving the Republicans control of the House, will push the two sides toward compromises on some issues.
Addressing this question in a news conference after his party’s big national defeat in the mid-term election, Obama said: “We must find common ground” to surmount difficult challenges and cited energy – which includes clean energy as a remedy for climate change – as a policy area on which Republicans and Democrats might find a way to work together.
But Obama side-stepped a question about whether he would continue using the EPA to curb global warming even if Congress resists this agenda. He noted that a U.S. court has delivered a verdict “putting greenhouse gases under [the EPA’s] jurisdiction.”
If the White House continues to use the EPA to tackle emissions under its authority to preserve clean air, the Republican lower house of Congress can resist this presidential campaign by denying funds for agency actions. Of course, the President retains his veto power, but using it could escalate a stand-off with Congress.
The White House retains a strong power of initiative and persuasion. Hopkins, the UN Foundation expert on climate and energy, says that Obama seems personally convinced of the need for action on climate change, and he has pledged to become more active on environmental issues in the coming year. But, as Hopkins notes, the President has never delivered a major national address devoted to making the fight against climate change an overriding goal for the country. “It is a fundamental problem that he has failed to present a clear story to Americans bringing home the full strength of the scientific consensus and putting forward a clear program for action,” according to Hopkins.
-- European Affairs