In the US, a changing climate?

What does proposed new legislation in the United States mean for the global fight against climate change? Our writers reflect.

[Produced in association with Rutgers Climate and Social Policy Initiative]

A moment worthy of reflection

Last Friday’s approval by the US House of Representatives of the Waxman-Markey bill (or American Clean Energy and Security Act) deserves a moment of quiet reflection. As someone who has followed the internal politics, it is hard to convey quite how dicey this looked a few months ago. The bill is far from perfect: the 2020 target is too low and too many permits are assigned gratis. But none of that matters.

If something like this bill survives the Senate, it will be good enough to set the United States on a unilateral path to de-carbonisation. Never mind that the levels will likely turn out to be too conservative. With a basic mechanism in place to internalise the costs of carbon, we can always ratchet up the targets as reality sets in.

And the same is true for the rest of the world. This bill, if it becomes law before the end of the year, may set a low bar for other countries to sign on to. However, once there is consensus on a way forward, it will be easier to push collectively for a steeper rate of de-carbonisation. Easier, but by no means easy.

There has been a Faustian deal in selling this legislation so that it can address climate change while sustaining economic growth. That may be true in the short run. But in the long run, internalising the true cost of carbon will extract a high price and an uneven one at that, as some sectors of economy will be more affected than others.

For developed economies, there will be enough surplus wealth to ease the transition for those most affected. But the developing world is a wholly different story: there, the costs (in terms of lowered rates of economic development) will be much larger and more difficult to offset than most are willing to admit. As such, the real challenge may not be so much getting an agreement, as sticking to it.

— Martin Bunzl directs the Initiative on Climate change and Social Policy at Rutgers University

A failed role model

If the Waxman-Markey bill is passed into law, greenhouse-gas emissions will be cut by 17% by 2020 from 2005 levels. However, greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States have climbed by 15.8% since the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997. A 17% reduction from 2005 levels would mean barely reaching 1990 emissions levels.

Barack Obama, therefore, has not achieved enough in terms of addressing climate change, and I find this unacceptable. Why? Because the United States acts as a role model. If it merely reduces its emissions by 17%, other countries – including Japan, Canada, Russia and Australia – may use it as an excuse to lower their reduction targets.

Australia has already voiced doubts about its climate-change commitments. Canada, like Russia, has claimed it cannot make the same emissions reductions as other countries, since the country is more reliant on fuel for heating and transportation due to its vast landmass and cold climate. The emissions reduction target set by the European Union is even lower than that advocated in China. Therefore, we hope to see the United States go further than a 17% emissions reduction.

Moreover, with regards to financial support, although the United States has unveiled a US$787 billion economic stimulus package, it has not promised the developing world any financial support for tackling climate change. We should not anticipate any financial support from the United States, especially since the financial crisis has affected the country.

Yang Fuqiang directs Global Climate Change Solutions at WWF International

Reclaiming leadership

The United States has done more than any other country to create climate change, now it has a responsibility to lead in searching for a solution. But after the unprecedented disasters of the Bush administration, the country must walk before it can run.

The US is not yet in a position to be a leader in global negotiations. After eight years in the wilderness, outside of the Kyoto process, this should not come as a surprise to anyone. The country is suffering from inertia domestically, where Congress is having trouble producing adequate legislation in time for the Copenhagen talks. Internationally, the negotiating team is only just beginning to re-engage. 

In the short term, the United States should concentrate on trying to lead in specific areas. One of the most positive early actions of the Obama administration has been their engagement with China on climate change. Together, the US and China could lead on designing, producing and manufacturing low-carbon technologies.

A cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship between the largest historical emitter of greenhouse-gases and the largest current emitter would be a very strong basis on which to build a truly global climate regime.

— Tan Copsey is development manager at

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Homepage photo by John Quigley/Spectral Q