November 27, 2009

Obama Likely To Struggle With Climate Change Promises

With the burden of his own promises weighing heavily on his shoulders, President Barack Obama will soon be on his way the U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen in little more than a week.  Facing a Congress that continues to cast a critical eye at a multinational climate treaty, he will likely have difficulties delivering on his vows to take action against global warming.

On December 9, Obama will set off for Denmark's historical capital city with an American offer to curb US carbon emissions by 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels.  Though the reductions are significantly lower that members of EU nations and UN climatologists had hoped for, they still represent the first concrete promise by the world's largest "” if somewhat unstable "” economy.

The part of the promise entailing the greatest political risk for Obama, however, are his long-term pledges to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 30 percent by 2025, 42 percent by 2030, and 83 percent 2050.  Because the realization of these benchmark figures are entirely contingent on approval by Congress, the President could potentially be putting his head on the political chopping block.

"The administration has to walk a very careful balance here," explained Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations to AFP reporters.

"It's clearly trying to satisfy the European demand for an initial target in Copenhagen. It needs to do that in a way that ensures that it does not lose Congress in the process."

Though Obama's proposed benchmarks do align with those outlined in a bill passed this summer by the House of Representative, there is by no means a guarantee that the Senate will give its approval to the legislation.

A bill mandating an even more rigorous capping of carbon emissions is currently floating around the Senate, but will likely not reach the floor for debate until sometime next spring. 

A united Republican front as well as a number of dissenting Democrats from coal-rich states make passage of the Senate bill in its current form highly unlikely according a number of Washington insiders.  Most critics of the bill are staunchly opposed to its proposed cap-and-trade mechanism of tackling climate change.

Obama's chief advisor on climate policy, Carol Browner, has already conceded that the President's proposed curbs on carbon emissions will inevitably have to be readjusted if Congress is to pass the bill.

Still, the President says that he stands firmly in favor of a cap-and-trade method of dealing with carbon emissions. 

The proposed system would set a fixed ceiling on the amount of carbon that individuals companies would be allowed to release.  Companies exceeding their limit of carbon output would then be forced to pay a premium for carbon credits, purchased from companies who had polluted less and had remaining credits left to sell.

Opponents of cap-and-trade maintain that utility companies will simply be forced to pass on the increased costs of energy production to consumers who are already struggling under rising energy costs and a struggling economy.


Other concerns surrounding potential US participation in a climate change treaty revolve around the dubious role that developing nations such as China and India would play.

One Obama official said that if "major developing countries make no commitment at all," then the US simply cannot run the risk of committing to a deal in Copenhagen that would put the country at a competitive economic disadvantage.

"No country holds the fate of the Earth in its hands more than China," said Todd Stern, President Obama's climate change envoy.

Yet even China, who leads the world in carbon emissions, has also begun yielding to political pressures, stating this week that it had set its first-ever carbon reduction targets at 40 to 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.

India, the world's fourth largest polluter has thus far remained stalwart in its resistance to political pressure on climate change.

European officials who had intended to examine the US's proposal to determine whether it represented a sufficient contribution to the global initiative against climate change have become aware of the fact that too intense scrutiny of the US without enough corresponding pressure on China and India would likely be self-defeating.

With the Kyoto Protocol set to expire in 2012, environmental activists around the world had hoped that the Copenhagen summit would be used to develop a replacement treaty"”a goal that UN officials have already warned will be all but impossible for the December meeting.


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