Jan 19, 2010
Depending on how you look at it, the Copenhagen
climate talks ended either in ignominious failure, or vanilla failure,
or just-about-but-not-quite-that-bad failure. The Swedes: a "disaster."
UK leader Gordon Brown:
"at best flawed, at worst chaotic." The financial markets, when they
opened the following Monday, sent clean-tech stocks plummeting. You can
judge the extent of the debacle by the quick attempts to deflect blame:
"British Minister Blames China for Opposing Copenhagen Deal," the Times of Indiareported. "China Rejects Blame for Copenhagen Failure," responded the New Statesman a few days later. "EU Blames Others for 'Great Failure' On Climate," the New York Timesnoted.
In the days following the conference's end (delegates were shooed out
of the vast convention center to make way for a design show), a few
inside-the-Beltway environmentalists insisted it had been a success
after all, because at least China and the US were talking, or because
it paved the way for something to happen in the Senate, or because
whatever. But the president himself, speaking a few days after his
return from the Danish capital, seemed more able to deal with reality:
"I think that people are justified in being disappointed about the
outcome in Copenhagen," he told PBS. "At least we kind of held ground
and there wasn't too much backsliding from where we were."
The failure might be defined this way: The world came together and
looked climate change fairly straight in the eye, and then its most
powerful nations blinked.
Civil society did a remarkable job forcing that stare-down-it managed to make an atmospheric carbon target of 350 parts per million the synonym for seriousness. (I helped organize one such effort at 350.org).
One hundred and twelve nations endorsed that target during the
Copenhagen meeting-but not the US and not China. Both had severe
political constraints: For Obama
it was 60 votes in the Senate and the power of the fossil fuel lobby;
for Beijing, hundreds of millions of poor people looking for the
easiest way out of their poverty. Both, for now, chose political
realism over scientific realism; neither were willing to bet their
futures on a dramatic transition away from coal and oil.
And so the climate change movement-arguably now the most widespread
global movement ever-needs to figure out what comes next. Copenhagen
has passed, and with it what seemed the perfect moment to take bold
action. How now to build pressure, how now to force change?
In some ways, it's too early to say for sure, especially since we don't
know how the minimalist accord Obama negotiated at the end of the
conference will play out. There may be more international meetings this
year, leading up to another Conference of the Parties in Mexico City
next December. But it's hard to imagine it turning into the same kind
of spectacle. Meanwhile, green technology continues to spread-but by
most accounts too slowly to alter the planet's fate, barring a change
in global policy that would accelerate the process. So there's no rest
any international accord is ever to succeed, American campaigners will
have to make more progress within our own borders-the inability of the
world's greatest economic power to break with fossil fuel holds back
every other nation. But that's easier said than done-not only is the
opposition fierce, but the American movement is fractured in powerful,
perhaps dangerous ways. So here's an early attempt to block out some of
the action we can expect in the months ahead:
1) The Senate Bill
Known originally as Kerry-Boxer,
this is the "economy-wide cap-and-trade" bill that the administration
has been working with its allies on Capitol Hill to craft since Obama
took office. In its simplest form, it sets "caps" on the amount of
carbon that utilities and the like can emit, and then allows them to
trade those allowances, theoretically producing reductions in carbon
emissions at the lowest possible cost. It's modeled on legislation that
helped reduce sulfur and nitrogen pollution from power plants over the
last few decades; the Europeans have tried a similar system with mixed
results to meet their Kyoto targets; and there are regional attempts at
such a scheme in the US already, most notably in the northeast.
The bill is embraced by most of the big national green groups,
either because they really like the cap-and-trade idea, or because they
see it as the most politically realistic approach-that is, they think
it can "count to 60." Its initial targets are feeble-by 2020 America
would have cut its emissions only 7 percent below 1990 levels, even as
scientists say 40 percent would be more appropriate. But, writes Joe
Romm, the indefatigable climate blogger who works for the very
administration-connected Center for American Progress, it still would
"create the institutions and the technology deployment capability so
that come 2020ish, if the world gets appropriately desperate, we can
act appropriately desperately."
Romm predicts that Congress will be able to pass some version of the cap-and-trade
bill-in the wake of Copenhagen he wrote, "I am more confident than ever
we will see a serious economy-wide climate and clean energy bill pass
in 2010"-if, that is, the president gets actively involved. Once such a
bill passes, he says, China will be on the spot: "They've been behind a
wall for a long time, and they haven't had to demonstrate leadership to
maintain credibility." And over time, what seems controversial now will
seem inevitable. "If Obama wins a second term, there won't be a
Republican coming in till 2017, and by then global warming will be
painfully obvious. I have difficulty believing this bill will still be
a contentious political issue."
For the moment, though, it's about as contentious as it gets, which is
why not everyone is as convinced that a cap-and-trade bill will pass
this year. As Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) told the Washington Post's
Juliet Eilperin, "I don't think the Senate has an appetite for another
such epic, polarized legislative war this session." Especially one
where the beneficiaries include the big bankers who would be figuring
out how to trade carbon derivatives.
Which is why there's suddenly a little more attention being paid to:
2) The Other Senate Bill
This one is short-about 40 pages to the 1,200 in the Kerry etc.
omnibus-and in certain ways far more novel. Instead of starting by
giving away pollution permits to the big utilities, it makes all the
big fossil energy users pay a stiff price for the right to pour carbon
into the atmosphere. And then it takes most of that money and uses it
to send a check to every American every month, a kind of payment for
their share of the sky. ExxonMobil would, of course, be passing on its
new costs-the price of gas at the pump, or electricity at the meter,
would go up. But the monthly check should cover most of that-indeed,
lower income Americans, or those who are frugal with energy, should
come out even or ahead. And the conceptual beauty of the plan is that
it would make it politically easier to steadily tighten the cap on
carbon as the science demanded it-every turn of the screw would mean
not just a higher electric bill but also a larger monthly check. And
Americans like getting checks, as Sarah Palin might attest-like every
governor of Alaska, she distributed a share of oil revenues every year
to the state's residents.
This so-called 'cap and dividend' bill is the brainchild of Peter
Barnes, founder of the progressive money-fund company Working Assets
(now Credo Mobile), who considers it a Plan B should Kerry-Boxer-etc.
fail. Because the bill would send 75 percent of proceeds straight back
to taxpayers and has, if anything, weaker initial targets than
Kerry-Boxer, it might have a chance of picking off some moderate
Republicans-it was introduced in the Senate in December by Maria
Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). Nobody seems to
actively dislike the idea-even Romm says it would be a decent idea "if
it were politically feasible." But he thinks it's not because it would
put more of a burden on consumers in the Southeast and Midwest, plus
utilities would fight it tooth and nail. Still Barnes insists that the
White House has not actually shot the idea down. "The president has
shown he's a political pragmatist. He'll get to 60 any way he can. If
he can at all."
3) The Technologists
Unlike other problems-racism, say-global warming is clearly, at
least in part, a technological problem. Which means that many of the
people looking at solutions find themselves backing one form of silver
bullet or another. I get emails daily from exasperated people wondering
why their favorite-biochar, biomass, high-altitude wind,
community-scale wind, nuclear,
concentrated solar, dispersed solar, tidal power, carbon farming,
vegetarianism, grass-based pasturing-hasn't become the agreed-upon fix.
The answer is that no one thing can replace coal and gas and oil:
Highly concentrated, easy to get at, simple to transport, they really
are magic fuels. More than silver bullets, we're likely to get silver
buckshot-a mix of alternatives.
The basic theory behind cap-and-trade and cap-and-dividend is that the
key to getting those alternatives in place is to increase the price of
fossil fuel-solar and wind will naturally soar as oil gets more
expensive, the way you would buy strawberries for your cereal if the
price of bananas skyrocketed. But that assumes that solar energy is
just like strawberries, just sitting there on the shelf. There are
those who think politicians will never drive the cost of fossil fuel up
enough to make renewables competitive-that we should spend our energy
on funding basic research instead of capping carbon. "We're
techno-pessimists," says Ted Nordhaus, the chairman of the Breakthrough
Institute and one of the loudest proponents of this argument. "We don't
have good, scaleable, cheap substitutes for fossil fuels now," he
contends. The Germans, he says, are leading the world in installing
rooftop solar reactors-because they're paying what he estimates is the
equivalent of $500 a ton to reduce carbon, "ten times what we're
talking about in Congress."
More R&D spending (way more R&D spending-the Institute has used
the figure $10.5 trillion-with-a-T) is therefore a chief priority.
They've proposed a National Institute of Energy, much like the NIH; the
Brookings Institution has talked about building Silicon Valley-like
"energy innovation hubs" around the country. And as these new
discoveries come to light, the government would have to drive demand by
buying up the technology at a high enough price-much, Nordhaus
contends, as the Defense Department did with semi-conductors.
Almost everyone agrees that more technology would help. But the
technologists have often been scornful of political action to control
carbon. (Thomas Friedman, in last year's best-selling Hot, Flat, and Crowded,
argues for deploying technology as the first priority by saying "a
truly green America would be more valuable than fifty Kyoto
Protocols.") The trouble is, as Romm points out, to really bring global
warming under control you also have to close existing coal-fired power
plants. "And all the R&D in the world will not make clean energy
cheaper than coal plants you've already built. You've got to have to
have a rising price for CO2 and a shrinking cap." Indeed, Nordhaus
agrees that a "modest" carbon cap would help move new technologies the
final mile toward deployment-but he thinks there's a far longer voyage
first, while the CO2-reduction-first crowd believes current technology
could go a long way, given an economic tailwind.
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