The Big Question: Is America finally getting real about climate change?


Why are we asking this question now?

Barack Obama has launched a policy revolution which will ensure that, if successful, his presidency will be a watershed in US history. Nothing however is as consequential as his attempt to change America's energy habits and fight global warming. The US may have been overtaken by China as the planet's biggest current polluter. But it has by far the largest pollution "legacy" of any country. Without it, no credible international assault on the problem is possible. The George W Bush administration, following the path set by Ronald Reagan a generation before, virtually ignored the issue, in part because of its links to the fossil fuel industries, in part because of the Republicans' belief that free markets could solve everything.

Obama's approach is diametrically opposed. If anything, he has intensified his rhetoric on the issue since taking office. Some already talk of him as a "Green FDR" – a president who will bring the power of government into the fight against climate change and energy wastefulness, in the same way that Franklin Roosevelt used that power to fight poverty and curb market excesses three-quarters of a century ago.

What has Obama done so far, in concrete terms?

He has set a goal of ending US dependence on oil from the Middle East and Venezuela by 2020 and of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent from 2005 levels by the same year. He is pushing a first ever "cap-and-trade" bill on Capitol Hill. Last week he announced plans to boost average fuel economy for new vehicles on US roads to 35 miles per gallon by 2016, from about 25mpg today. Potentially most important of all, the EPA, the federal government's environmental agency, has ruled that carbon emissions are a public health hazard. That step, strenuously resisted by the Bush administration, gives Obama broad new leeway to act on pollution and emissions. Last but not least (and pardon the pun), the intellectual climate around the debate is changing too.

Is this as much about people as policies?

Indeed. The economic crisis has brought home America's energy vulnerability, and the absurdity of borrowing $400bn or more from China every year to buy oil from countries, many of them home to terrorists out to bring America down. Polls suggest that climate change is now registering as an issue for the public. And while the Bush/Cheney team resisted, even suppressed, science showing that global warming was man-made, Obama has surrounded himself with advisers who know the issue inside out – Carol Browner, his climate tsar (or rather tsarina), and Steven Chu, the Nobel prize-winning physicist who is now Energy Secretary, to name but two.

What about Congress?

There too, the stars are about as well-aligned as they could be. Democrats in the House of Representatives have introduced a "cap-and-trade" bill – the American Clean Energy and Security Act 2009 – aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020. Last week the measure cleared its first major obstacle, winning approval from the powerful House Energy Committee.

The aim is a final floor vote in the House by July, and a joint Senate and House bill on the President's desk by autumn. Without such a measure the US will have little credibility to press other big polluting countries like China, Russia and India to commit to stringent new targets at December's international climate change conference in Copenhagen.

As usual, the biggest problem is the Senate, where minorities have procedural means to block legislation they don't like. Within a few weeks however, Democrats may have the 60 Senate seats needed to prevent a Republican filibuster of the cap-and-trade bill.

But isn't the measure already getting watered down?

Yes, the original 20 per cent emissions reduction target by 2020 has been cut to 17 per cent, while the bill will give away, rather than auction, the bulk of the carbon emissions permits. As it stands, the measure is a hideously complex, 932-page monster, full of loopholes for those who read the fine print. Many in the green lobby are disappointed. But others reckon it's best to settle for an imperfect measure now, which can be improved later.

A larger threat is that the bill is squeezed out by others. Next down the legislative tracks is health-care reform, a more easily understood, and therefore more urgent priority for ordinary Americans. The saving grace for environmentalists is that if this federal bill dies, then states will be free to bring in their own stricter measures – exactly what the Bush-Cheney lobby tried to prevent.

So are we all Californians now?

President Obama certainly is. He has lavishly praised the steps taken by California to curb emissions, improve fuel efficiency and promote renewable energy. The state, the most populous and car-dependent in the US, has long had some of the country's most stringent environmental and emissions rules. It openly complained about the Bush administration's efforts to overrule its actions. California has worked with the other Pacific coast states as well as New York, to push anti-climate change policies faster than the federal government. If all else fails, that trend will continue.

But what about the car and energy lobbies?

They are less influential now than in a long while. The energy lobby, given the sheer sums of money it represents, remains powerful, though with far fewer friends in high places than in the Bush/Cheney era. As for the car companies that normally would be expected to steadfastly oppose stringent fuel efficiency and emissions standards, they are being kept afloat by the government. They are in no position right now to object to anything decided by Washington.

Will the recession make it more difficult for Obama to achieve his goals?

That is a clear risk. Republicans already claim that if implemented, this barrage of regulations and initiatives will raise corporate costs, acting as a kind of tax – the last thing the economy needs as it struggles to emerge from the slump. The longer recovery is delayed, the stronger that argument will become. The price of energy, above all the price of petrol, is another factor in the equation. If petrol remains cheap, the pressure for fuel savings and alternate sources of energy will inevitably lessen – witness the plunge in sales of fuel-efficient cars in the US since oil prices came off their 2008 peak.

For all his boldness in other areas, Obama has shied away from a direct gas tax increase to make sure a gallon of fuel never costs less than, say, $3 or $3.50 (compared with around $2.30 currently). Environmentalists say this would kill several birds with one stone: encouraging energy savings, the growth of fuel-efficient and alternative-fuel vehicles, and helping balance the budget as well.

Will Obama go down as the President who made the difference?


*The country is at last taking climate change seriously

*The financial cost of continuing as before is unsustainable

*He must do, if a climate catastrophe later this century is to be averted


*Recession-bloodied Americans are unlikely to put up with any further sacrifices

*The forces of inertia and the status quo are still too great

*Come January 2017 at the latest, Obama will be out of office

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