Cooling on warming

Environment | Neither presidential candidate likely will bring any change to the United States' climate policy
by Mark Bergin
Posted 10/31/08, 12:00 am

Think a Barack Obama presidency would significantly change the country's course on climate policy? Not so says a growing cadre of economists, political analysts, and environmental experts-including some supporters of the Illinois senator.

Charles McElwee, a law professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and a leading liaison between the United States and China on emissions discussions, contends that neither Obama nor John McCain is likely to convince Congress to ratify hard caps on greenhouse gases amid the nation's economic turmoil-especially given that "a growing economic powerhouse like China gets to continue to increase its GHG emissions and gets lots of money and free technology to boot."

Harlan L. Watson, the U.S. State Department's special envoy to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, takes it one step further, arguing that no world leader, including the new American president, is going to bear the financial cost necessary to clamp down on carbon anytime soon: "The economy is going to be the focus of the new U.S. president and the world leaders for the foreseeable future. Quite frankly, the economy has buried everything."

Global financial hardship has undermined the long propagated myth among some environmentalists that going green on climate policy will usher in new energy markets, create jobs, and stoke national economies. Obama and McCain have joined that chorus of green optimism in the past. But in the face of true financial tumult, even the most committed environmentalist politicians are backing down from that Pollyannaish claim, apparently unwilling to stake their future careers on a maxim meant more for boiler plates ("There's green in going green") than the real world.

Among those toning down the environmentalist rhetoric are many European leaders. Renato Brunetta, Italy's innovation minister, has called the European Union plan to further cap greenhouse gases despite economic realities an "act of madness." And Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Italy have all expressed severe reservations about a plan that requires universal EU member agreement to move forward. Even in Germany, where green politics are king, doubts have surfaced from prominent officials as to whether implementing EU carbon caps would devastate international competitiveness in critical industries.

Obama and McCain will face similar concerns with higher consequences, given the global economy's heavy reliance on U.S. markets. What's more, the current climate change bill bouncing around Congress amounts to a legislative farce, according to University of Colorado professor Mark Williams: "The climate bill is the most ridiculous piece of legislation ever. Clause 1 sets a carbon target for 2050. Clause 2 gives the secretary of state the power to amend the target and the target date. This is just a policy statement packaged as legislation and a waste of time for the legislature."

Ultimate passage of the bill, which calls for 80 percent emissions reductions from 2005 levels by 2050, could turn on how many seats Democrats pick up in next week's election. But amid economic uncertainty, even Democrat supermajorities could prove a bit cool on the global warming issue.