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Finally, US action on Climate Change takes the first baby step

Avinash Godbole was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • July 01, 2009

    The United States House of Representatives passed a landmark legislation H.R. 2454, the "American Clean Energy and Security Act," by a narrow margin of 219-212 on 26 June 2009. This bill requires the reduction of nationwide greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent of the 2005 level by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050 through a "cap-and-trade" program under which companies would buy and sell emissions credits. The bill has more hurdles to cross before it becomes a law. Most importantly the Senate is yet to vote, but the first ever positive action on climate change by the American Legislature is critically important as it indicates substantive changes in the mindset of the American leadership on the issue of global warming and climate change.

    At the global level, debates and efforts to control climate change through dialogue and sustained action have been seriously hampered hitherto by the lack of willingness on the part of the United States assuming a leadership role. This is because the American leadership, particularly during the Bush regime felt that the commitments on climate change would mean the end of the American economic model. Thus the United States had stopped short of firm commitments each time the issue of emission reductions came up for discussion. While at the same time, the American representatives pointed fingers at the gross emissions of India, China and Brazil and called for initiation of action by the developing countries. When the United States propagated democracy globally, its intentions were backed by the application of the same model domestically. Since this did not take place in case of issues relating to climate change, the doublespeak in what it desired from others and what it was willing to do at home meant that no one was willing to trust American intentions. This led eventually to large developing countries such as China and India pointing to the historical contribution of the US to greenhouse gas emissions and per capita carbon emissions. The overall initiative on climate change had increasingly become a futile exercise in the face of weak commitments by major players.

    Positive and sustained action on climate change was one of the major promises of Obama’s presidential campaign. By pushing for the implementation of this extremely uncomfortable bill for American industry, the Obama administration has proved its seriousness by putting its money where its mouth is. The Obama administration believes that it will be able to take leadership in creating green jobs and revolutionise the way economies around the world function. Thus, this administration does not believe the climate change action to be a threat to the American way of life but as an opportunity to initiate change that benefits future generations. This was apparent in President Obama’s statement a day before the House debate that the country could neither be afraid of the future nor a prisoner of the past. Obama has been paying special attention to the progress of this bill as was evident from his three appeals to the US Congress to pass the bill.

    The positive vote by the House of Representative is only a small step. Lot more needs to be done by the Obama administration’s drive home its point as far as this initiative is concerned. Domestically, there is huge opposition to this bill and to other initiatives that attempt to curb unrestrained carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. The narrow margin of victory explains this fact. Passing this bill through the house has taken lot of backroom planning and public relations efforts. It has also meant that the passed bill is much more watered down than what was hoped by proponents of the bill to the point that it has already been criticised as being counterproductive. On the other hand, many of the Democrats are not certain about the expected positive gains from this bill and most Republicans have criticised it as a burden on an already fragile economy. The industry and business associations, which need to make major policy changes, have criticised it as being a job killing anti industry measure. Thus, the task before the administration, as the bill proceeds to the Senate, is to build a domestic consensus on the long terms gains of the bill. It will also have to face and answer the criticism by conservative political and media circles as the bill favours developing countries in the name of cap and trading mechanisms. Thus, educating the masses on the bill will help repel the fierce opposition that the bill is likely to face in the days to come.

    It is believed here the American leadership on climate negotiations in the future will steer the negotiations in the right direction. There may not be a global consensus on what direction the negotiations should take but the negotiations will move beyond pointing fingers at each other’s underbelly. As far as India and other developing countries are concerned, they need to prepare for more tough bargains at Copenhagen later this year as the United States will be in a position to ask more of China, India and other large emitters whose gross emissions are high and are only going to increase in the light of their development drives. Its first glimpses will be seen at the Group of 8 Summit to be held in Italy in July this year. Already there are fears being expressed of this legislation on carbon emissions being used as a trade barrier against India and China. The Senators must realise that any move intended at protecting domestic industry is going to be counterproductive as a result of carbon emission norms proposed in this bill. President Obama has already spoken against any such move that sends across protectionist signals in a time of recession. Perhaps he realises that if the US could use climate policy as a trade barrier it could face even more stringent actions from the Europeans who are doing much better on climate policy.