The U.S. and Climate Change 2009 -2010

Fr. Séan McDonagh, SSC | December 14, 2010 Print

By mid-2009, the U.S. appeared to be moving towards ambitious climate change policies with the passage a comprehensive climate change bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. Then in December 2009, expectations were high that Copenhagen would complete the Bali Road Map and develop an ambitious, legally-binding treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and thus tackle climate change. Trust between the Parties to both the UN Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol broke down in Copenhagen when the Danish Presidency seemed to abandon the multilateral negotiation process in favour of cobbling together an Accord which was negotiated by a select handful of countries.

The Copenhagen Accord did at least acknowledge that climate change is the greatest challenge facing humankind, and that steps must be taken so that the mean global temperature will not rise about 2 degrees Celsius. But there were no binding emission targets, timelines, or sanctions. All that was asked of the Parties was that they make voluntary pledges to limit greenhouse emissions. A recent study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) entitled The Emissions Gap Report makes it very clear that current pledges would not reach the target of 2 degrees Celsius set by the Accord.

By mid-2010, the momentum to enact climate legislation in the U.S. Congress had passed, partly because of the economic crisis, and party politics. Though the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill had passed through the House in June 2009, a similar bill passing the Senate was blocked. In July 2010, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he would not be bringing the bill to the Senate floor.

The mid-term election in the United States on November 2nd 2010, was another important moment in the road to comprehensive climate change legislation. Many newly elected congresspeople are skeptical of the threats climate change has on the global community. This will make it much more difficult for an energy or climate bill to be approved in the U.S. Congress during the next two years.

Robust Science
What about the science of climate change which many of these new members of Congress are questioning? In 1999, Peter Stott, who was then head of climate modeling at the British Met Office’s, Myles Allen from Oxford University and a number of meteorologists published an article in the journal Nature. They based their predictions on the range of temperature change for the period between 2000 and 2040 on temperature data which had been collected in the period between 1946 and 1996. They then drew a graph representing the range of predicted outcomes for that period with a dotted line indicating the most likely outcome. The graph predicted that there would be a 0.8 degrees rise in temperature in 2010, when compared with 1946. This is exactly what has happened. So, in that stringent test, the science has been vindicated.

The U.S. government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the first eight months of 2010 were as hot as the first eight months of 1998 – the warmest ever recorded. But there is a crucial difference. In 1998, there was a record El Niño – the warm phase of the natural Pacific temperature oscillation. In 2010, El Niño was smaller (an anomaly peaking at roughly 1.8C, rather than 2.5C), and brief by comparison to those of recent years. Since May, the oscillation has been in its cool phase (La Niña). Even so, June, July and August this year were the second warmest on record.

Unfortunately, even with such strong warnings, there are still many who still doubt the science which postpones effective actions. Thisbecomes a moral issue because those who did least to cause the present crisis will suffer most. Similarly, delaying action on climate change will have an untold catastrophic impact on all future generations of humans and other creatures.

Signs of Hope
On the positive side, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that GHG emission declined during the period 2008 – 2010. This can be attributed to the economic downturn and the conversion of some coal-fired utilities to natural gas. Another important factor was the Obama economic stimulus package (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) which directed 18% of the total US$787 billion to climate change and energy projects. The five largest green allocations, in descending order are: renewable forms of energy, energy efficiency, transit and high-speed rail, and the modernization of the power grid. This injection of capital was very important as ‘green’ energy companies were beginning to row back financially because of the recession.
On another front, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is preparing to regulate CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act and the Supreme Court decision of 2007. If the rules to further restrict NOx, SO2, Mercury, and acid gas come into force, this will reduce an estimated 25-59 GW of highly polluting coal-fire utilities.

States are more active
While serious movement at the federal level is slow, there has been quite a bit of movement at state and local level. Forty-one states have established greenhouse gas registers. In addition, nearly two-thirds of the states are involved in one of three regional initiatives for capping emissions. The three are the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) and the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord (MGGRA). While all of the three have relatively modest targets, the combined scale is significant.

How will the U.S. behave in Cancun?

Some countries feel that the U.S. will attempt to block progress on setting up a Global Climate Fund if its demands on mitigation (reducing GHG emissions), and transparency from emerging economies such as China, are not met. Todd Stern issued such an ultimatum at the Geneva Dialogue of Climate Funding in September. He is on record as saying: “We are not going to move on the Green Fund (a UNFCC controlled Climate Fund to help developing countries adapt to and mitigate climate change) and the $100 billion (in long-term financing that the U.S. had previously promised to help mobilize) if the issues that were central to the Copenhagen Accord, that were part of the balance of the Copenhagen Accord, including mitigation and transparency, don’t also move.”

In the intensity of the debate and the various dimensions of what is a complex process, one can easily forget the importance of what is happening here in Cancun. In a sense, the world media has forgotten. Only a fraction of the media which were at Copenhagen is here in Cancun. In my daily internet checks of media outlets in Ireland, Britain, and the U.S., I find that the Cancun Conference is getting very little coverage. But the issue hasn’t changed. Unless the international community can frame an ambitious, legally binding treaty within a year or so, the consequences for humankind, the planet, and all future generations will be dire.

Some of the above technical data is from a Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Policy Brief distributed here at Cancun. The rest is my own gleaned from a variety of sources.