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The Climate for Climate Change Policy

Author: Toni Johnson
June 13, 2008


Advocates for aggressive policies aimed at tackling climate change have quietly applauded as higher energy prices have sent the resale value of SUVs plummeting, jump-started technological competition in Detroit for low-emissions vehicles, and spurred the revival of long-moribund proposals for everything from green building codes to reinstituting a 55 mile-per-hour highway speed limit. Yet the soaring price of energy has combined with rising food prices and a general U.S. economic downturn to sour the environment for climate change legislation. The Democratic leadership in the U.S. Senate hoped it could pass a bill proposing a 71 percent reduction in U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. But the effort failed miserably, and its opponents’ claims that the legislation would add further to gasoline prices played no small role.

Lawmakers in both parties who support greenhouse-gas limits believe the fall presidential election will put them in a better position to prevail in 2009 (Politico). And as a new CFR Independent Task Force report argues, an effective U.S. foreign policy on climate change begins at home. The report provides a broad array of policy options, including: helping other countries mitigate emissions and adapt to climate change through technology and technical support; improving U.S. energy infrastructure; aiding developing nations to move away from coal; and lowering tariffs on biofuel imports.

But policymakers worry about damaging America’s economic competitiveness (WSJ) as countries like India, China, and Brazil race ahead in the global marketplace. Developing nations small and large face no binding emissions targets under the UN’s Kyoto Protocol, and the Bush administration has used this to oppose joining the global climate change regime. CFR’s Task Force does not recommend pursuing such targets. Instead, it suggests a partnership with the world's major emitters that includes a "clear and firm U.S. commitment to domestic emissions reductions"—something the present administration has resisted.

Profound disagreement exists over whether developing nations should be required to meet specific targets on greenhouse-gas reductions. This issue bedevils the quest to agree on a new international regime to replace Kyoto when it expires in 2012. Some developing nations reiterated a call for strong commitments (Hindu) from developed countries. Yvo de Boer, head of the UN Framework on Climate Change, in a recent interview with, insists developing countries do have a responsibility to take actions to reduce emissions under the protocol and many are doing so. While supporting the UN process, the CFR Task Force report also emphasizes the need for "a backup plan" if the UN process fails.

Back in the United States, lawmakers fresh from the defeat of the Senate bill face the daunting task of crafting a policy to reduce U.S. emissions in a difficult economy. As TIME notes, debate in the Senate “never made it past the partisan bickering and economic fear mongering” to the policy questions which ultimately must be faced. Complicating the debate was an International Energy Agency report, released June 6, which says tackling climate change would cost over $45 trillion over the next half century (PDF) and a recent scientific study by NASA scientist James Hansen that argues for the need to end burning coal (PDF) entirely. Some economists assert that the estimated 1 percent that proposed climate policies would pare off U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) would be a small price to pay in comparison to the potential cost of inaction.

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