Monday 12 October 2009

Preparing for the Copenhagen climate talks

Lindsey Graham and John Kerry are trying to craft a bipartisan compromise on climate change. Under the terms of this deal, the Republicans would actually admit that climate change is a problem (for which they deserve no credit), and that we should set up cap and trade, with the EPA empowered to step in if change doesn’t come fast enough. In return the Democrats give some ground on offshore drilling, nuclear, and the search for clean coal.

Apparently they (rather optimistically) hope to get this through Congress soon, before Obama (or his delegate) goes to Copenhagen to negotiate international climate agreements. As soon as anybody says we want this done before Copenhagen, the Republicans will do all they can to delay passage, and then brag that they forced us to go to Denmark with no concrete proposals. As we learned from the GOP’s caterwauling when Obama “lost” the Olympics and then won the Nobel Prize, Republicans don’t care if America looks bad, as long as Obama also looks bad. Attacking America’s Democrats is more important than attacking America’s problems, as far as they are concerned.

The other issue is – who are the Republicans who will go along with Graham on this climate change compromise? Is Graham just the new Olympia Snowe, dangling the myth of bipartisanship in front of us like a gold watch, in order to hypnotize us into making more concessions? I think Graham should bring some new GOP faces to the table before we talk seriously about running off and joining the “clean coal” snipe hunt.

And, Senator Grassley, you’re not invited. You already wasted two months of our lives with your footdragging.

Also – Boxer says her committee (Environment Committee) will pass the Boxer-Kerry bill soon, which is presumably close to the Graham-Kerry formula. They’re courting Graham. The House passed a somewhat similar bill in June.

As for Copenhagen itself, the developing world is making efforts to cut emissions – China and India on infrastructure changes, China on emissions, Brazil on deforestation – but when the world meets to talk climate change, China and India are going to want Obama to give them things in return, which will cause backlash back home: big emissions cuts in the U.S., U.S. investment money for developing countries, a chance to share in U.S. energy technology (exacerbating the intellectual-property issue), and a little slack in establishing their own emissions caps.

There are other issues which will cause trouble here in the U.S.: in addition to the inevitable obstruction from Republicans, there will also be the need to refit old buildings, build new ones the right way, build infrastructure, divert money away from recession-fighting efforts and development, and the need for legislation on environmental restrictions, verification and enforcement (to include penalties).

Creating and then dashing high expectations would be toxic both at home and abroad. The White House is reinforcing the notion that the Copenhagen talks are not at the head of state level, so that if it looks like an ugly disaster, Obama can wave off of a personal appearance without hearing the bipartisan screaming, to the tune of “so you went to Scandinavia for the Olympics and the Nobel, but not for climate change?” If we don’t have a climate deal passed in Congress, he is even less likely to go.

They also will work to lower expectations, and aim for a the establishment of a framework which would lead to a more long-term process: the Kyoto deal took years to set up, and a bilateral U.S.-China deal, if forged soon, could provide the framework for further progress. After that, though, Obama would want to keep the ball moving: it is probably not in his nature to approve a broad, vague conceptual framework and then leave it at that, particularly if his successor – from either party – might be less committed to making progress on this front.

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