The Failed State of US Climate Change Policy

The Waxman-Markey climate bill is the best we will get from America until the corruption of public life is addressed

It would be laughable anywhere else. But, so everyone says, the Waxman-Markey bill which is likely to be passed in Congress today or tomorrow, is the best we can expect - from America.

The cuts it proposes are much lower than those being pursued in the UK or in most other developed nations. Like the UK's climate change act (pdf) the US bill calls for an 80% cut by 2050, but in this case the baseline is 2005, not 1990. Between 1990 and 2005, US carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels rose from 5.8 to 7bn tonnes.

cut proposed by 2020 is just 17%, which means that most of the
reduction will take place towards the end of the period. What this
means is much greater cumulative emissions, which is the only measure that counts.
Worse still, it is riddled with so many loopholes and concessions that
the bill's measures might not offset the emissions from the paper it's
printed on. You can judge the effectiveness of a US bill by its length:
the shorter it is, the more potent it will be. This one is some 1,200
pages long, which is what happens when lobbyists have been at work.

There are mind-boggling concessions to the biofuels industry, including a promise not to investigate its wider environmental impacts. There's a provision to allow industry to use 2bn tonnes of carbon offsets
a year, which include highly unstable carbon sinks like crop residues
left in the soil (another concession won by the powerful farm lobby).
These offsets are so generous that if all of them are used, US industry
will have to make no carbon cuts at all until 2026.

Like the EU emissions trading scheme (ETS),
Waxman-Markey would oblige companies to buy only a small proportion
(15%) of their carbon permits. The rest will be given away. This means
that a resource belonging to everyone (the right to pollute) is
captured by industrial interests without public compensation. The more
pollution companies have produced, the greater their free allocation
will be - the polluter gets paid. It also means, if the ETS is anything
to go by, that the big polluters will be able to make windfall profits
by passing on the price of the permits they haven't bought to their

In one respect the bill actually waters down current legislation, by preventing the Environmental Protection Agency
from regulating coal-burning power stations. If the new coal plants
planned in the US are built, it's hard to see how even the feeble
targets in this bill can be met, let alone any targets proposed by the

Even so, I would like to see the bill passed, as it at
least provides a framework for future improvements. But why do we
expect so little from the US? Why do we treat the world's most powerful
and innovative nation as if it were a failed state, rejoicing at even
the faintest suggestion of common sense?

You have only to read
the comments that follow this article to find out. Thanks to the
lobbying work of the coal and oil companies, and the vast army of
thinktanks, PR consultants and astroturfers
they have sponsored, thanks too to the domination of the airwaves by
loony right shock jocks, the debate over issues like this has become so
mad that any progress at all is little short of a miracle. The ranking
Republican on the House energy and commerce committee is Joe Barton,
the man who in
2005 launched a congressional investigation of three US scientists
whose work reveals the historical pattern of climate change
. Like those of many of his peers, his political career is kept on life support by the fossil fuel and electricity companies. He returns the favour by vociferously denying that manmade climate change exists.

combination of corporate money and an unregulated corporate media keeps
America in the dark ages. This bill is the best we're going to get for
now because the corruption of public life in the United States
has not been addressed. Whether he is seeking environmental reforms,
health reforms or any other improvement in the life of the American
people, this is Obama's real challenge.

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