Forget about a climate change deal anytime soon

Business Times - 19 Nov 2009

Forget about a climate change deal anytime soon


AS someone who has been following the political and legislative debate over climate change in the US Congress, I was a bit startled that so many pundits seemed so very surprised when President Barack Obama was forced to acknowledge in Singapore over the weekend that a comprehensive climate deal was beyond reach this year.

Instead, he and other world leaders agreed that they would work towards a more 'modest' interim agreement with a promise to renew work towards a binding treaty next year.

Good luck with that! And here is a bold prediction: There would probably be no support in Congress during the rest of Mr Obama's term for any binding accord to address global warming, making it very difficult to negotiate any global accord to replace the Kyoto Protocol that expires in 2012.

The election of a charismatic Democratic US President who pledged during his campaign to end eight years of inaction on climate change under his Republican predecessor and who promised that the US would lead the way towards a global agreement may have created strong expectations at home and abroad that President Obama, backed by a Democratic-controlled Congress, would succeed in working with other world leaders to reach a global agreement in Copenhagen next month.

But after the spectacle of the debate in Congress and around the country over Mr Obama's modest proposal to reform America's ailing healthcare system - months and months of nasty political bickering and legislative brinkmanship with no end in sight - the time has come to start lowering the expectations about the current White House occupant's ability to deliver on his promises on climate change as well as on other controversial issues.

And notwithstanding his enormous popularity in Western Europe, we should also recognise that Mr Obama has failed to win support from governments and publics there for sending more of their troops to Afghanistan or to receive some of the detainees in Guantanamo, suggesting that even a global media star cannot become a miracle man. Indeed, Mr Obama's personal charisma cannot be a substitute for achieving a real political consensus over climate change in Washington or, for that matter, in Copenhagen.

There is no doubt that governments are going to continue negotiating, hoping that Mr Obama can come up with new commitments at the UN climate meeting in Mexico or Germany next year. But that will depend on whether the US, the world's leading polluter, would support such commitment, which in turn depends on whether Congress can pass some form of carbon-capping legislation - or 'cap-and-trade' system - that sets a ceiling on emissions in the coming months.

But that is not going to happen anytime soon, and not only because Mr Obama does not have the kind of political leverage over Congress that he had in the aftermath of his stunning election victory.

The Congressional mid-term elections in November next year are going to slow down any effort to pass unpopular legislation. That reality is going to particularly affect centrist and conservative Democratic lawmakers who represent rural areas in 'red' states in the Midwest and the South.

Moreover, the American public continues to remain divided over the need to pass a carbon-capping legislation. If anything, the current economic downturn makes it more difficult to win support from financially distressed Americans for Congressional bills that are going to increase energy costs.

So it's not really surprising that after the House of Representatives approved a somewhat modest bill in June, the climate-change legislation is now stuck in the more conservative Senate (where the healthcare reform bill is languishing) which would have to endorse the final draft of the treaty.

With so many other policy issues dominating the legislative calendar - healthcare, Afghanistan, Iraq, financial regulation - it is unlikely that Mr Obama is going to use his depleting political capital to press for passage of an ambitious climate-change bill.

In any case, it is important to remember that even in the best-case scenario - where Washington embraces an ambitious plan to impose short-term emission reduction targets - there is going to remain a wide gap between the positions of the US and its allies among the rich industrialised countries and those of developing nations like China and India which are under pressure from the developed nations to accept commitments to restrict future carbon emissions.

Recognising this political reality should help lower expectations among negotiators about Copenhagen and the prospects for concluding a climate accord anytime soon.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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