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January 19, 2009

The Unbearable Heaviness of Climate Politics
I'm a bit late to the party on this but it's still worth some attention. There's been a flurry of activity on the climate front, both scientifically and politically. First, via Joe Romm, comes news that the latest climate models suggest that the emissions targets President-almost Obama outlines in his climate plan of going back to 1990 levels by 2020 aren't aggressive enough. This news, combined with Stephen Chu's recent, and surprisingly robust, endorsement of coal power during his confirmation hearing, tempts Matt Yglesias to throw up his hands:
...If you look at [Chu's] testimony at his confirmation hearings, you'll see that good personnel doesn't repeal the mechanics of the political system and so there he was walking back earlier remarks he'd made about the evils of coal and the virtues of high gasoline prices.

Long story short, my best guess is that Obama's climate proposals are too ambitious to be enacted and too timid to avert catastrophe.

That would be bad since, if we do nothing, the Earth as we know it goes away. But I'm not ready to give up just yet. Obama certainly needs to get something done in the US during his first term - 2012 is now bandied about as the drop-dead date for the start of aggressive climate action. But it may be that Obama's greatest climate priority in the next year or so may be bringing China into the fold. Romm has been a big promoter of this idea and he finds some excellent evidence that the politics of the climate debate may require it. Here's what Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh had to say during Chu's confirmation hearing:
...Because [cutting emissions is] an important issue, we have to make sure it's going to work. And without China participating, it's not going to work, and I don't think it will get enacted. And a skeptic viewing their past behavior would have to say that's going to be a heavy lift. So, in a way that is, you know, verifiable and transparent, it's just going to be very hard to get them there. And so I think we're going to have to focus on that component early on in this process.
Bayh's a moderate and it will be the moderate Senators, both Democratic and Republican, who'll decide whether we get cap-and-trade or not. If Bayh says China needs to get its act together first, you can be sure his moderate colleagues are thinking the same thing. Perhaps this is why House Speaker Pelosi said earlier this month that the House may wait on cap-and-trade until 2010 (though don't tell Henry Waxman). The trick will be getting a climate bill that isn't riddled with loopholes, offsets and "safety valves." It may be that only with China singing from the same hymn book that we'll have any hope of that.

One final thought on coal: the Obama Green Team's comments have to be taken with, if not a grain of salt, than at least with the recognition that confirmation hearings are minefields to be carefully navigated, not bully pulpits from which to preach. There's no need to step on a Republican hair-trigger if you can avoid it - and making nice about coal to the Senate Energy Committee when you're still a Secretary-designate (not to mention a President-elect) seems good manners as well as good politics. And why shouldn't we spend the next few years trying to make carbon capture and sequestration for coal plants a reality? Better to push forward with such research during a time of free spending and economic stimulus rather than a time when the zero sum rules of research funding are in effect. Who knows? It may even work...

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