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Politics binds US over climate

By Tom Switzer - posted Friday, 12 November 2010

In 2008 Barack Obama described his Democratic presidential nomination as "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." Yet within two years, as Hillary Clinton acknowledged in Melbourne this week, his administration has abandoned its landmark legislation to combat man-made global warming.

Of course, the US failure to implement an emissions trading scheme, or a carbon price more generally, is hardly novel. Other nations, such as Canada and Australia, have also shelved cap-and-trade proposals.

What makes Washington's failure so much more significant is that without its leadership the prospects for a legally binding, enforceable and verifiable new international agreement are virtually zero.


The cap-and-trade bill that narrowly passed the House of Representatives in June 2009 had been stuck in legislative limbo for more than a year. But Senate Democrat leaders, faced with near-double-digit unemployment and skyrocketing national debt, recognised it represented political death for many colleagues.

Indeed, many Democrats from mid-west coal and manufacturing states ran specifically against cap and trade in last week's mid-term election. Take Joe Manchin: in one television commercial, the senate candidate for West Virginia saved his campaign by literally shooting the bill with his hunting rifle.

As for the Republicans, only two out of the 48 primary candidates for Senate said they believed in man-made global warming during the recent campaign.

If Congress, with Democratic super-majorities, could not pass a climate bill so weak that it consisted of little but loopholes to the so-called big polluters, the President had no chance of persuading a new group of more sceptical lawmakers riding an anti-tax wave to Capitol Hill.

To be sure, Obama hopes to unveil other climate initiatives such as multimillion-dollar subsidies for renewable energy projects. But most green lobby groups concede that direct-action proposals are insufficient measures to combat global warming.

Obama could use the US Environmental Protection Agency to override Congress and unilaterally impose regulations under the 1990 clean-air laws. But such action would be deeply unpopular in several bellwether, recession-plagued states in the lead-up to the 2012 presidential election. In any case, administrative regulation would almost certainly be tied up in litigation for years.


Which brings us back to a global treaty to succeed the Kyoto protocol which expires in 2012. China, India and Brazil have made it clear they won't sign. In the EU, the ETS has been a victim of fraudulent traders and done to little to reduce emissions. And Canada is hitched to the US. Get ready for Cancun to be another Copenhagen.

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This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on November 8, 2010.

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About the Author

Tom Switzer is a fellow of the Australian Institute for Progress and a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He is a former editor of the Australian Spectator.

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