Cap-and-trade legislation aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions appears to be dead in this Congress. Even a moderately ambitious alternative has been shelved until later this year at the earliest. The biggest implication is that the United States has once again failed to confront its climate problems. But there is another: the United States is in for a rocky time in international climate diplomacy.
One month before the Copenhagen global climate talks at the end of last year, the United States was in a bind. It had not passed climate legislation and was balking at making any promises at the conference. The stage was being set for the United States to be blamed for any failure in the negotiations.
Washington recovered with two surprising promises. It said it would cut emissions by roughly 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, a number that was based on the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill that had passed the House last year. Others found that target lacking, but applauded the United States for putting itself on the line. Failure to pass cap-and-trade will make it more difficult to hit that target. But I suspect there are a variety of alternative ways of achieving it. Analysts and lawmakers are going to need to do some searching on that front.
The second U.S. promise in Copenhagen was more pivotal. On the next-to-last day of the summit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised that the United States would help raise up to $100 billion annually by 2020 to aid developing countries in dealing with climate change. That splintered the bloc of developing countries and allowed developed countries to force China to make a deal. Beijing, meanwhile, took the bulk of the blame for the remaining shortfalls in the final agreement.
The U.S. share of that $100 billion figure also came from Waxman-Markey. Raising it without cap-and-trade will almost certainly be impossible. If others conclude from the current debacle that cap-and-trade is permanently dead in the United States, Washington will be in for a rough ride at the climate talks in Cancun in December and in other (almost certainly more important) efforts that follow.
The most immediate international climate priority for the United States, then, is to shore up its diplomatic position on delivering financing for developing nations' climate change measures. Anything that Congress can appropriate would be invaluable, whether it's channeled through the Department of Energy, USAID, or the Export-Import Bank. So would a somewhat conciliatory U.S. position in the UN High Level Panel on climate finance, which is outlining a set of options for innovative financing sources. The United States, meanwhile, needs to start searching for a diplomatic strategy that doesn't depend on huge financial promises.
The United States spent the better part of the last decade being pilloried for its lack of action on climate. The last year and a half has seen a new attitude from much of the rest of the world. International observers have watched the U.S. political debate with growing skepticism over whether Washington could ever deliver cap-and-trade, but they have still held out hope. The sharp setback to the Senate's cap-and-trade efforts on July 22 means that the honeymoon for U.S. climate diplomacy is over.