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US Climate Policy After a Hot Summer - from "Yes We Can" to "Sorry – We Tried"?

US Climate Policy After a Hot Summer - from "Yes We Can" to "Sorry – We Tried"?

30 August 2010

Dr. Camilla Bausch and Benjamin Görlach of the Ecologic Institute and Dr. Susanne Dröge of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs hosted the 16th Climate Talk at the end of August 2010. The evening’s theme was: US climate policy after a hot summer - from "Yes we can" to"Sorry – we tried"?

After the long, cold winter of the Bush years and the springtime of the first Obama months, American climate policy now seems to be getting stuck at the federal level. Many different and promising attempts at a national climate protection legislation were undertaken, but presently it does not look like a law will pass through Congress in the near future. In addition, in light of the upcoming midterm elections at the end of 2010, the window for an ambitious federal climate protection policy seems to be closing. At the same time, the Clean Air Act gives the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) real leverage to push federal measures forward. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has shown quite plainly America’s dependence on fossil fuels and the associated risks of such a dependence. And finally, many in the economic sector that see climate protection as an enormous new business area are beginning to voice their opinions, urging that the US economy keep up with Europe and Japan in areas like renewable energies, electromobility and smart grids. What then can we expect for American climate and energy policy in the medium term?

Introductory speeches were held by Michael Mehling (Ecologic Institute, Washington, DC), Miranda Schreurs (German Advisory Council on the Environment) as well as David Wortmann (First Solar).

Michael Mehling gave an overview of the status of American climate policy. He emphasized the significance of the US on climate policy in the international climate negotiations, as it is the world’s biggest economic power and one of the biggest CO2 polluters. Developments within American politics, on which Michael Mehling’s lecture focused, are also decisive for the USA’s behavior in international negotiations. He brought to mind the high (and perhaps excessively high) expectations after President Obama took office: after eight years of standstill in climate policy in the US, all signs pointed to the adoption of an ambitious climate policy. Already during the election campaign, Obama had announced ambitious goals, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. In addition, he promised to use the powers of the executive office to institute a sustainable energy transition, if Congress had not passed such a law by the end of 18 months. The makeup of the president’s cabinet and the House of Representatives and Senate also looked promising. In June of 2009, an ambitious climate bill was even passed by the House of Representatives, the "Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009", but passing the Senate’s own climate bill, a necessary step in the law-making process, proved unsuccessful. After many attempts, the passing of any ambitious climate legislature is now, shortly before the midterm elections in November 2010, no longer expected.

However, there have been other noteworthy advances made, including the Economic Stimulus Package of February 2009, which allocated 10% of its funds to the areas of environment and energy, giving a much needed impetus toward the promotion of a sustainable economic and energy system. After the Supreme Court ruling in April 2007 that confirmed the responsibility of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, the EPA instituted several far-reaching measures based on the Clean Air Act. For instance, all CO2 emitters are now required by an EPA law to report their CO2 emissions. Along with the Department of Transportation, the EPA has set in place new restrictions on the fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of motor vehicles. Also, another controversial provision concerning greenhouse gas emissions of stationary facilities is still in discussion. Although these first advances show that climate protection is possible by means of already available laws, the EPA is in danger of creating new obstacles: the EPA has already been criticized of encroaching upon the rights of the legislative branch by issuing so many regulations. Thus, although the beginnings of a federal climate policy for the US are evident, it is difficult to tell whether future political and legislative actions will limit further, far-reaching implementation of such a policy.

Miranda Schreurs confirmed the present pessimistic outlook for greater US participation in climate policy and gave an overview of climate policy engagement beyond the national level, including, in particular, the Western Climate Initiative, which seeks to institute emissions trading on the regional level, independent of the national government, by 2012. Whether this plan materializes or not depends on the outcome of the upcoming elections in California. In addition, there are currently several local initiatives that are relevant to climate policy, including, among others, the "U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement", created by the mayor of Seattle, as part of which more than 100 American communities have pledged their cooperation in achieving climate and energy goals. Many non-government organizations are also involved with climate topics, such as universities and NGOs. Miranda Schreurs also observed that the "spin" Obama put on climate policy, i.e. linking it to green jobs in order to sell the idea better, hasn’t worked. Even the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has not led to a broad debate about renewable energies in the US.

David Wortmann of First Solar provided an economic perspective on this debate. First Solar is one of the world’s largest producers of solar technology, employing more than 1000 people in both the US and Europe and 2000 in Asia. From his point of view, the development of renewable energies is still dependent on general political conditions. Planning and construction of solar energy plants in the US is not only more administratively complex and tedious compared to Germany, but long term security for the investment is also lacking, which is provided in Germany through the EEG. Despite this, the demand for renewable energies in the US is growing. The Economic Stimulus Package of the Obama administration has created lucrative options for developing renewable energy sources. In addition, there are many ambitious legislative standards for renewable energies at the state level (Renewable Portfolio Standards). A federal climate legislature is indeed lacking, but, together, the many smaller programs make the US an interesting stage for business with a good business climate. The weakness of the American market right now, however, lies in the current uncertainties about the financial crisis.

In the following discussion, the participants discussed what the causes for the difficulties of the US in making advances in climate policy. According to the speakers, public debate is playing a big roll. The public is to a great extent skeptical as to whether climate change is actually taking place. This skepticism was exploited through the recent email controversy with the IPCC ("Climategate"), the often irrelevant debates in the media and the general American skepticism towards state interference. Another topic of the discussion concerned which level US climate policy could be most easily influenced. According to several participants, one should not put too much faith in the international level, since, in the past, the US failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol as well as other important international environmental agreements. Much more promising to the participants seemed bottom-up strategies, partly through non-governmental organizations, which are already very active in the area of climate policy and also through certain sectors of the economy.

From Germany’s perspective, it seems advisable to look for and pursue the exchange with organizations beyond the federal level, for example on the state or community level. Such programs are often isolated in their own country and could therefore profit greatly from integration with foreign programs. Concerning international climate negotiations, it is questionable whether Germany should wait to see whether the US can eventually take on a leading roll. Germany should instead look for other allies on the international level, perhaps among newly industrializing countries.

After the event, the lively discussion was continued in the relaxed atmosphere of a nearby restaurant.

Miranda Schreurs (German Advisory Council on the Environment)
David Wortmann (First Solar)
30 August 2010
Berlin, Germany
Number of Participants
climate change, foreign policy, Obama, Waxman-Markey, Lieberman-Warner, Western Climate Initiative, Trading Schemes, EU, Europe, US, USA