Nine months after the Copenhagen conference our 3 week visit to the US last month has given us some insights into how the climate change debate has affected thinking in a country, heavily dependent on oil and still with the largest economy in the world.
A New York Times article (18th February 2010) reported on the disappointment of many that progress in the US on green issues was too slow and concessions too numerous. But let’s acknowledge at the outset that some key developments have taken place. The Christian Science Monitor (17th April 2010) points to a number of significant moves taken at a federal level. These include:
● Formal recognition of the dangers to health from greenhouse gases, which has paved the way for regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency.
● Setting of a new clean car standard, which will promote future efficiency and innovation in the industry and bring substantial reductions in emissions
● Commitment of $90 billion Recovery Act monies to accelerate adoption of renewable energy sources – like the 30,000 acre solar energy scheme in San Joaquin Valley, California – and support high speed train developments.
Critically there still remains the task of persuading Congress to agree reduction targets and penalties – as there are in the UK – to ensure compliance. However as with the Health Bill changes, Obama is by no means assured of success and for similar reasons.
There are powerful US interests, willing to fund those opposed to the thrust of Obama’s environmental policies, even though they have been watered down to win wider support. The best current example is the Proposition 23 (P-23) campaign in California. Here Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has steered through the legislature a commitment by 2020 to reduce CO2 emissions to the levels of 1990. This target is part of Assembly Bill 32 (AB32) of the Global Warming Solutions Act, but is opposed by a variety of oil and other interests.
The P-23 campaign seeks to reverse the AB32 reductions commitment until unemployment levels in the State, now above 12%, have dropped below 5.5% for four consecutive quarters, a level only seen three times in the last three decades.
This month two brothers, David and Charles Koch, have come forward with a $1 million contribution to the P-23 campaign. A small step maybe but typical of the way that they and others with oil, energy and refining interests seek to influence public attitudes about climate change. Their Koch Industries conglomerate is the second largest privately owned company in the US with a $98 billion annual turnover; and has provided over $50 million to climate opposition groups.
A report in Grist (17 August 2010), a Seattle based NGO, describes this as a battle between clean new technology and old fossil fuel thinking and points to growing support from green entrepreneurs for California’s landmark global warming initiative.
With recognition from amongst the US military that existing global energy supplies have now reached a peak (Guardian report, 11th April 2010 ), – and will decline – the California AB32 programme could be seen by the P-23 campaigners as an initiative for making up the likely deficit in traditional fuel supplies, but the chances of this in a highly polarized debate are minimal.
In an excellent article in Global Dashboard (18th June 2010) Alex Evans argues that there are costs, inconvenience and limits involved in a transition to something positive on climate and that there will be clear (and noisier) losers. He makes this interesting point. “What will open the political space for comprehensive solutions – alas – will be impacts: impacts that are tough enough to frighten people badly, but not so bad as to overshoot irreversible tipping points.”
If he’s right, let’s hope that we can get there quickly enough.