America’s environmentalists were torn about whether to support the Waxman-Markey climate bill, which passed the House on June 26, and for good reason. On the one hand, passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act was a historic achievement. After twenty years of denial, deception and delay, Washington had at last ordered reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions that drive global warming. On the other hand, the bill’s specifics fell far short of what science says is necessary to (perhaps) prevent catastrophic climate change.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)has said that global emissions must fall by 25 to 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. The cap-and-trade provisions of Waxman-Markey will cut US emissions by only 1 percent by 2020, a shortcoming backers disguise with creative accounting. They claim the bill will cut emissions by 17 percent–which it might, if one measures against the higher baseline of 2005–and includes credits for halting deforestation overseas, though of course the earth’s atmosphere would not be tricked by such maneuvers. Adding insult to injury, most of the bill’s pollution permits will be given away rather than sold, thus subsidizing today’s polluters and delaying the transition to low-carbon energy sources. Finally, the bill cancels the president’s current authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse emissions, a clear step backward.
Supporters argued that such dilutions were necessary to gain enough votes to pass the bill (the vote was still close–219 to 212) and that Congressional backing of emissions cuts is essential to establish US credibility at the crucial global climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December. Doubtless these same arguments will be repeated when Waxman-Markey goes to the Senate, where the legislation is likely to be weakened further, if it passes at all.
But why assume that US credibility in Copenhagen rests on Congress passing a climate bill, no matter how weak? The United States has other ways to send the world a message–and Barack Obama began exploring them even before he became president.
In July 2008, shortly after securing his party’s presidential nomination, Obama sent representatives to Beijing for two days of high-level, off-the-record talks on climate change, held in a luxury hotel overlooking the Great Wall. Leading the Chinese side was Xie Zhenhua, China’s top climate negotiator. The US delegation included Republicans (though John McCain’s campaign declined to participate) and Democrats, notably John Holdren, now President Obama’s science adviser. The talks went so well that a second back-channel meeting was held in October, where unofficial agreement was reached on three points. Chief among them: China and the United States would “work together for a successful outcome” to the climate negotiations in Copenhagen, according to William Chandler of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who helped organize the discussions.
If that pledge becomes policy, it could rank as the most important breakthrough in the history of climate change diplomacy. Together, the United States and China produce 40 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. That gives them veto power over the rest of the world’s progress; no matter how much the European Union, which has pledged 20 percent reductions by 2020, and other governments might do, they cannot reverse global warming if the two carbon superpowers don’t do their part. Conversely, if China and the United States were to announce credible, ambitious plans to limit emissions, it would build momentum for reaching a strong agreement among all nations in Copenhagen, a meeting widely seen as humanity’s last chance to avoid catastrophic climate change.