Climate of unrest

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When Barack Obama took office as US president in January, he thought he had a double-whammy solution for two of his most pressing challenges: tackling the economic crisis and reducing his country’s greenhouse gas emissions. With his economic stimulus package, Obama sought to spur investment in green technology, simultaneously creating jobs and promoting cleaner energy.

But he has discovered that turning plans into policy is no easy task, even with Democratic majorities in both houses of US Congress.

“The closer we get to this new energy future, the harder the opposition is going to fight,” Obama said in Florida last month, announcing that $3.4bn of the $789bn economic stimulus package would be allocated to a “smart grid” project to modernise the US’s electricity network. “It’s a debate between looking backwards and looking forward; between those who are ready to seize the future and those who are afraid of the future,” Obama said, adding that the drive to create a green economy would require “an all-hands-on-deck approach” similar to the mobilisation that preceded the second world war.

However, Obama’s opponents are standing in the way. His Recovery Act includes $80bn for developing new battery technologies for hybrid vehicles, modernising the electricity grid, improving energy efficiency and encouraging the use of renewable energy from the likes of solar panels.

But plans for legislation to curb emissions and encourage low carbon technology have been bogged down in Congress, meaning the president is likely to arrive at the UN’s Copenhagen climate change conference in December empty-handed.

“There is no way the House [of Representatives] and the Senate can agree on legislation for the president to sign before Copenhagen,” says Patrick Michaels, a climate change specialist at the Cato Institute, a free-market think-tank. “Just having a bill progressing through the Senate is not enough – he can’t assure the Copenhagen conference that the bill will be passed.”

The House has narrowly passed a broad climate change bill that cuts emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020. But the Senate version of the bill, which calls for a 20 per cent reduction by 2020, has been hamstrung by Republican resistance, exacerbated by reluctance from Democratic senators from rural and industrial states, and by divisions within the business community.

Lisa Murkowski, a Republican senator from Alaska and a member of the committee on energy and natural resources, believes Congress should not pass climate change legislation for legislation’s sake. “We haven’t gotten anything out there that, in my opinion, meaningfully reduces our level of emissions while at the same time making sure that we haven’t kicked the economy in the head,” she told a recent forum.

While Republicans criticise the cap-and-trade system – which allows companies to trade emissions permits – for being too burdensome on business, some environmentalists think the Obama administration is using the wrong tools. “The cap-and-trade legislation is not legislation that will reduce our greenhouse gases below business-as-usual levels for the next 20 years,” says Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, a think-tank. “The content of the climate bills is far worse than anyone imagined.”

Nevertheless, the Senate environment committee voted to send forward its version of the bill without any Republicans present last month. On the Senate floor, Republicans are likely to find allies in Democratic lawmakers from states such as Montana, Nebraska and Arkansas who will have difficulty supporting legislation that imposes new rules – and costs – on their constituents.

Senator aides say it is now unlikely any bill will be passed this year, creating new problems. Lawmakers seeking re-election in mid-term elections will swing into campaign mode next year, and will shy away from any unpopular measures.

Delays could be costly. Steven Chu, US energy secretary, recently warned that Japan and China were pressing ahead with clean energy technologies. To increase the sense of urgency on Capitol Hill, the Obama administration has suggested it will use regulation – through the Environmental Protection Agency – to reach its goals if Congress fails to send legislation to the president to sign.

The best chance of legislating a new energy policy now lies with three senators: John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts; Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina; and Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut.

They are trying to forge a bipartisan consensus and get the 60 votes needed to pass the bill into law. The trio has banded together to build a compromise package to “broaden the base of support” for a Senate climate bill, which the group hopes to unveil before the Copenhagen meeting next week.

“Our goal is to create a vision that not only will help this planet … but will create millions of new jobs for Americans, and help us become energy independent to make us safer,” Graham said recently. “I think most Americans – Republicans, independents or Democrats – really feel uncomfortable with the fact that our nation sends a billion dollars a day overseas to buy foreign oil from some countries who don’t like us very much.”

The three senators’ proposal is expected to incorporate measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions, as well as exploring nuclear power generation and encourage domestic oil and gas exploration. With Copenhagen approaching so quickly, Kerry said recently that simply getting a “binding and real political agreement … that will embrace finance mechanisms, adaptation, the [emissions] targeting levels” would be a “huge success”.

Analysts say Obama will not be able to sign up to an international treaty without a clear mandate from Congress, and there has been some criticism that his administration is not working hard enough to get legislation passed before Copenhagen.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, rejects any such suggestion. “We are closer to an energy and climate bill becoming law than we ever have,” Gibbs said recently. “The notion that one country stands in the way of addressing climate change would be to forget countries like China, India, Brazil, and others that have to also be brought along in this process.”

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