Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Opposition to Obama = poor chance of passing Senate climate bill in 2010

(Photo of Capitol Building from Flickr and photographer wallyg/Wally Gomez)

Prospects for passing a climate bill in the Senate next year are looking grim when Senators return to Washington to pick up where they left off -- squabbling about health care. A bicameral conference group will try to reconcile the House and Senate versions in a way that can pass both houses, likely with no GOP votes. Tops on the agenda after that are financial regulatory reform and a jobs bill. So where will something as controversial as climate change fit in? Or will it?

Some Democratic Senators and the White House are pushing for a cap-and-trade bill this spring, before the heat of the 2010 election campaign picks up. But others are pushing back, suggesting postponement or even dropping the idea altogether.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who got big money in exchange for her vote for health reform, is the underdog in a re-election fight next fall. She’s pushing for an energy bill separate from cap-and-trade. Other Dems down on cap-and-trade include those from Louisiana (an oil state), North Dakota (the leading coal state, which also has oil reserves), Nebraska (concerned about the impact of high energy costs on farming) and Indiana. A vote for cap-and-trade to restrict fossil fuels is not something they want to campaign on next summer and fall.

If any bill materializes that can get 60 Senate votes it will be the compromise being forged by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Such a bill is not guaranteed to contain cap-and-trade and will inevitably have big giveaways to offshore drilling, nuclear power and “low-emissions” coal.

But that assumes they’ll get around to it, when the nation is much more focused on jobs and the economy. Time may run out, thanks to Republican refusal to cooperate on health care and their pretty uniform opposition to climate legislation.

Which brings me to something I’ve been stewing about for months: Why there is such solidarity among Republicans against Obama’s main initiatives. They’ve made it clear, they want him to fail.

The Harold Washington syndrome
It takes me back to the election of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, in the '80s. Most white aldermen (the Vrdolyak 29) banded together to oppose everything he wanted to do. Racism was more blatant, as one of their number showed up the day after the election with an all-white button on his jacket. They wanted him to fail and believed opposing him would play well politically with their white constituents.

Sound familiar? I’ve no doubt race is an issue here, as well as fear of something different (a foreigner from Kenya??) who was swept into office in large part by young people who hadn’t voted before and therefore were considered by many to be illegitimate. Don't think so?

What if Joe Biden where president, with the same agenda? Would there still be the tea parties, the vitriol stirred up by talk show hosts and by politicians like Sarah Palin? Would Joe Wilson have yelled, “You lie” during the President's health care address to Congress?

In Chicago’s case, Washington’s popularity with the people led to his re-election and a change of tune by his opposition who in many cases saw better opportunities for re-election by emphasizing they were now with him, not against him. That could happen with Obama.

But meanwhile, the country -- and the planet -- suffer while the Republicans just say “no.”

(Sources: The Hill, The Times of London, MSNBC)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Final deal at Copenhagen climate conference omits greenhouse gas targets, deforestation plan

In the end, the Copenhagen climate conference “took note” of, rather than approved, the agreement essentially brokered by President Obama with the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) major emerging economies plus Japan and Europe. Strong dissent was voiced by Venezuela, Sudan, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia, who were outraged industrial countries didn’t commit to strong, specific targets.

UN Sec.-Gen. Ban Ki-moon, who gaveled the final consensus Saturday morning after a night of debate, said afterward this accord was an essential first step and must lead to a legally binding agreement next year.

Dropped from the document in the final hours was a plan to pay countries to avoid deforestation.

The “breakthrough” accomplished in Obama’s meeting Friday with the major economies was agreement that they would all report their emissions cuts (or in the case of emerging economies, their actions) for international scrutiny. The president extended his visit by 6 hours to jawbone with leaders of major economies, then took off because of the blizzard targeting on Washington.

What was in the final document?
• Recognition that world temperature increases should be kept to 2 degrees Celsius (though they dropped the term “from pre-industrial levels,” allowing for an additional 0.7 degrees).
• $30 billion for poor countries to adapt to climate change over the next 3 years, with a goal of $100B a year by 2020.
• Industrialized countries must list their targets for cutting GHG, while major developing economies such as BASIC, Mexico and South Korea, must list actions taken to reach specific goals.
• A method for international verification of emissions.

What wasn’t in it?
• Agreement on specific, significant targets for cutting GHG, either short-range or long-range
• A plan to pay 40 countries to curb deforestation, which accounts for between 15-20% of emissions (and puts Brazil and Indonesia in the top 5 emitters).
• A date for reaching a legally binding agreement.

Countries that agreed with the Copenhagen Accord were asked to sign it.

UN climate chief Yvo de Boer told reporters, “We should have done better.”

Pledges made to date will not limit temperature increases to 2 degrees. More like 3 degrees.

The U.S. role
Despite Obama's important role in brokering an agreement, some blamed the weak accord on the U.S. for failing to come in with a climate bill at home signed, sealed and delivered. And if the U.S. had committed to, say, 20% cuts (from 1990) by 2020 like other industrialized nation, the agreement would likely have been much stronger.

So our Senate held back not only the U.S., but the entire world, which is a crying shame. One note: Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the global warming denier who’s ranking member of the Environment Committee, had pledged to take a “truth squad” to Copenhagen to tell world leaders there’d be no U.S. climate bill. Apparently there was no squad and he spoke to no leaders. Let’s hope those he reached saw him as the annoying gnat that he is.

So, what now? Another year of tedious, fractious worldwide negotiations and a concerted effort to pass a meaningful bill here, while each country works toward its goals at home. I know you’re probably exhausted with signing petitions, sending money and demonstrating for the health care fight, but gear up for a new challenge in January. We need a decent climate change law. The world is depending on it.

(Sources: NRCD switchboard, Yahoo News/AP, BBC, Guardian. MSNBC)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What did Hillary's $100B offer at COP15 mean?

(Photo of Clinton with U.S. negotiator Todd Stern at COP15 from Flickr and photographer Andy Revkin)

When I woke up this morning to the news that Hillary Clinton had announced in Copenhagen that the U.S. would raise $100 billion a year for poor countries to fight and adapt to climate change, I was amazed that Barack Obama hadn’t saved such big news for his speech tomorrow.

Here’s what she said, when she arrived last night, or was it this morning? The half-day time difference really throws me.

“The United States is prepared to work with other countries toward a goal of jointly mobilizing $100 billion a year by 2020 to address climate change needs of developing countries.”

A lot of qualifying terms there: work with others, toward a goal, jointly mobilizing…. It wasn’t exactly a declaration that the U.S. government, perhaps with bonus money thrown in by Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and other Wall Street fat cats (and maybe some help from Mr. Bill’s Foundation connections) would put up all the money.

As I began to parse the language and read more reports, some things became clearer – i.e. that she was sent to offer a carrot to African and other very poor nations to use a stick on China and India to allow their emission cuts to be monitored.

She noted such a fund was only for the poorest countries (i.e. not China) and it depended on a climate agreement including verifiable commitments to cut emissions or carbon intensity (i.e. China).

Other things became less clear – i.e. how much of the $100B will come from the U.S.? How much public and how much private? Will the billions already pledged by Japan, the EU and others for the next three years be part of that fund? Are we simply echoing a pledge by Europe to help set up a worldwide $100 billion fund for the long term?

According to U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the pending climate bill here contains $5B a year in proceeds from auctioning cap-and-trade allowances that would go to developing countries. Others are suggesting some of the money could come from $60B in annual subsidies for fossil fuels.

Whatever the case, response by other countries and environmentalists is positive and seen as perhaps the “breakthrough” the climate talks needed to avoid a failed conference. It suggests a long-term commitment by the U.S.
This may be the only way Obama can “lead,” given the stinginess of the Congress in committing to cut emissions.

Although poor countries say they need much, much more than $100 billion as droughts ravage some countries and rising seas threaten to obliterate others, their point person at the conference, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, acknowledged they would accept $30B in the short term, $50B by 2015 and $100B by 2020.

Some of this money would help avoid deforestation, which causes about 20% of the world’s greenhouse gases. (Did you know the world is losing an acre of forest every second? I read that in Al Gore’s new book, “Our Choice.”)

An agreement to pay countries to avoid clearing their forests for agriculture has been one of the more likely outcomes of this conference.

World leaders are starting to arrive. We’ll see what the coming day brings (it’s already getting to be evening Thursday in Copenhagen).

(Sources: Sierra Club, Greenwire, Washington Post, LA Times,

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Time is running out; deal or no deal for climate agreement at Copenhagen this week

(Photo of session at COP15 from Flickr and UN Climate Talks)

It’s hard enough to get 60 Democrat and Independent senators to agree on a health reform bill. Negotiations just seem to boil it down to the lowest level.

But try negotiating with 15,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries. That’s what’s been going on in Copenhagen the past 9 days. Small wonder they haven’t come up with much.

The poor countries want the rich countries, which caused the problem, to be much more aggressive about cutting emissions and to put up about $500 billion a year to save them from climate change.

And the rich countries want the big emerging economies with significant emissions, like China and India, to be accountable to the rest of the world for their planned cuts in carbon intensity (emissions wouldn't grow as fast as the economy.)

After a week of posturing and casting blame (and a half-day walkout by African and other developing countries), not much has been decided.

Now the top environment ministers and celebrities have arrived. Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Prince Charles and N.Y. Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave them a pep talk and the ministers settled in to try to resolve some things before more than 100 heads of state arrive later this week for the conclusion of the much-touted climate treaty conference, COP15. President Obama will address the group Friday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Yi-Moon arrived, saying, ”Time is running out. There’s no room for posturing and blaming.”

What now?
Will anything come of this conference? There are only 3 days left.

Despite the discord, some environmental leaders think there may be success. A great deal of advance work was done by the U.S., China and India in the past weeks, with their leaders making specific pledges to curb emissions.

One question is whether Obama will be emboldened to up the ante on his original pledge of 17% (over 2005 levels) by 2020, which is only about 3% over the usual baseline 1990. He now has the EPA’s endangerment finding which allows the administration to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, as well as a bipartisan “blueprint” for a Senate bill that would meet the House target of 17%. Our offer is pretty pathetic compared with Europe’s and Japan’s. But does he dare roil up a prickly Senate which has yet to pass any climate bill and would have to ratify any international treaty by (omigod) 67 votes. Probably not.

Another question is will China eventually give in and let others monitor its pledged 40-45% drop in intensity.

Funding for poor nations
A third major area to be resolved is how much the rich countries will put up to fund mitigation and adaptation in poor countries. The mitigation helps us all, by keeping GHG out of the air. The adaptation helps poor countries that are already hurting from the climate change that some say doesn’t exist. (Maybe someone from a disappearing island nation will throw a sandal at wacko Sen. James Inhofe, who plans to show up.)

The European Commission, before the conference began, offered $10.8 billion a year for the next 3 years. Japan just agreed to put in $10B a year. The U.S. apparently has offered $1B next year, to be followed by $2B in 2011 and 2012. We’ve also offered to put $85 million a year for 5 years into a clean energy development fund for these nations.

This is not nearly enough, say the developing countries. They want half a trillion. So how much is really needed? Of course it’s impossible to say. But British economist Nicholas Stern said $100B a year by 2020, then double that amount in the following decade. The EU estimated $147B a year by 2020. And the UN is calling for more than $500B a year.

Of course if we did more to curb emissions sooner, we wouldn’t have to spend so much on adaptation. And conversely, if we end up with a weak deal, or no deal at all, it will cost much, much more – we’ll all need adaptation funds.

(Sources: E&E News PM, ClimateWire, BBC, E&E TV, Huffington Post, Reuters PlanetArk)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

New bipartisan Senate 'framework' for climate bill favors oil, coal, nuke industries

(Sen. Lindsey Graham gives John McCain's mother a punch in the cheek (not really) on Election Night 2008. Photo from Flickr and photographer Dr. Akomodi

Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) released a framework last week for a Senate climate bill that supposedly could get bipartisan support. Kerry was chief sponsor (with Barbara Boxer) on the original, stronger Senate bill, which presumably can’t get the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster.

Lieberman has been working several years, first with John McCain (R-Ariz.) and then with now retired John Warner (R-Va.) to pass some kind of climate bill in the Senate, so it’s not too surprising he offered to help massage Kerry’s bill.

Graham? He’s great buddies with Lieberman and McCain (the three amigos were a frequent photo op during McCain’s presidential campaign), so I have to wonder if he’s a stand-in here for McCain, who’s publicly gone more conservative with a Senate election coming up.

Anyway, the framework was released last week in an effort to show that, yes, there’s a chance to cut greenhouse gases in the U.S. 17% by 2020, despite the foot-dragging in the Senate. That is what the House passed and Obama has more or less promised to the rest of the world. Do you know how piddling 17% based on 2005 levels is? Most industrialized countries that made pledges based them on 1990 figures and are up in the 20-30% range.

The four-page framework doesn’t have a lot of other details but it does outline priorities: jobs and lowering dependence on foreign oil.

There are whole sections, though, on nuclear, domestic oil and coal. A little of that would be expected, if they’re trying to get bipartisan support. But let’s not let those industries write the bill!

A comment Graham made to E&E News last week is particularly alarming:

"I need the nuclear power industry to say that this bill gets us to where we want to go," Graham said. "I need the coal companies to say that clean coal provisions will not only not put us out of business, but actually increase the value of coal in America. And I'm going to need the oil and gas industry to say that the oil and gas drilling provisions are meaningful, will add to our inventory and make us more energy independent, and it's good business."

He actually said that.

Wait a minute here. Wait just a minute. Are we doing this to ensure the continuation of fossil fuels and the resurrection of a defunct nuclear industry? Or are we doing it to clean up the environment and make the planet safe for humans?

We need to watch very carefully as this bill is developed. There are some nice thoughts in it: Like long-term 80% reduction in GHG (they don’t commit to any year though, and it may be hard to get from here to there by 2050, which is when we should be at 80%).

They do note that putting a price on carbon will push development of low-carbon energy, but incentives for nuclear and “clean” coal get more attention.

There are actually sections entitled “Ensuring a Future for Coal” and “Encouraging Nuclear.” Um, excuse me, what about wind and solar? And geothermal and biomass? And efficiency….

Clearly this is written to appeal to the coal states (of which there are many) and the oil states, but will they lose the environmentalists -- and any sane person who realizes what fossil fuels are doing to this planet? A big part of the motivation is they want Congressional action instead of EPA regulation or a patchwork of restrictions in individual states. They actually say all that.

There is too much mention of “outside stakeholders.” Guess who that is? Not us.

The rest of the world is not happy with our puny 17% pledge at Copenhagen and I can’t see that they’re going to like the rest of what’s in the Senate “framework.” Let’s hope they put huge pressure on the U.S. to get real on climate and not just shill for existing industries as this framework seems to do.

It’s embarrassing the U.S. is so far behind Europe and being chided by China and other developing countries for not doing enough. Are we really going to let the “outside stakeholders” in the U.S. determine the future of the planet?
(Source: E&E News PM)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Copenhagen Climate Change Conference 101

(Photo of coal power plant in Germany from Flickr and photographer davipt/Bruno Rodrigues

Nearly 200 countries head to Copenhagen this weekend, in an effort to forge a “political” climate agreement – to be followed in 6-12 months by a “binding” agreement. It is far from certain what the outcome of this Dec. 7-18 United Nations Climate Change Conference will be.

The UN’s chief climate executive Yvo de Boer hopes to see:
• Deeper emissions targets from industrialized countries.
• Reductions or actions pledged by developing countries.
• A “prompt start” fund for clean energy, adaptation and deforestation reductions – with rich countries pledging $10 billion a year over the next 3 years.
• A decision about the structure of a legally binding agreement to follow next year.

Individual pledges
Some industrialized countries have individually stated targets for emission cuts by 2020.
• Norway was the most ambitious, offering to cut 40% (from 1990 levels).
• The EU pledged 20% (from 1990), going up to 30% if others did the same.
• Japan pledged 25% (from 1990).
• Australia said 15% (from 2000).
• The U.S. said 17% (from 2005). (We are already down 8.5% because of the economic slowdown.)
• Canada followed the U.S. lead, though its parliament wanted a 25% cut (from 1990).
• Russia pledged 25% (from 1990), though it’s already down about 34% based on economic problems, so could increase its emissions under this pledge.

The overall pledged reduction from industrialized nations for 2020 is somewhere in the range 11-15%, far below the 25%-40% developing countries expect from the “rich countries.”

Developing countries
Some developing nations also have announced goals, often measured against BAU (business as usual) projections. They all want to grow economically, but will cut “intensity” or amount of emissions per economic unit.
• China pledged 40-45% reduction in intensity.
• Brazil said 36-39%, and an 80% cut in deforestation.
• South Korea pledged 30% below forecasts (from 2005 levels).
• Indonesia said 26% from BAU.

About 70 heads of state have said they will attend, including Obama, who will be there Dec. 9 on his way to Oslo for the Nobel ceremony; president Hi Jintao of China; Prime Minister Gordon Brown of UK; and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia.

Some issues and acronyms you should know about if you plan to follow this conference, knows as Cop15:

MRV = monitor, record and verify. Obama pushed this concept as a necessary component of any agreement. Some developing countries are wary of it, without any funding to help them keep track of their emissions.

BASIC = The four biggest polluting developing countries: Brazil, South Africa, India and China. Under the Kyoto treaty they didn’t have to set targets. Now they threaten to walk out if rich countries demand too much of them.

REDD = Reduced emissions from deforestation. This is a big issue for rainforest countries that want credit for not cutting down trees and financial help to replace farming and livestock that are replacing the forests.

Trust – This is not an acronym but a serious problem between the have and have-not countries.

All this plays out against the backdrop of recent reports that climate change is happening more rapidly than anticipated – fulfilling the worst-case scenario in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports.

Stay tuned. This is important stuff. We’re all in it together.

(Sources: Sierra Club, BBC, Reuters, ClimateWire, NRDC,