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Emissions trading hangs by a chad in Obama’s fight

The environmental future isn’t a major debate topic during US presidential elections. But perhaps it should be.

The results of this US election will be critical to the Australian efforts to reduce emissions whether an Australian government is led by the Labor or Liberal parties.

The amount of money that can be spent on R&D into better turbines, better solar cells, better batteries and more fuel efficient cars is critically dependent on the size of the market for these products. So is the amount of capital equipment to produce these goods. These are all upfront costs that benefit greatly from economies of scale. Without the US as a robust source of demand you’ve just destroyed the business case for investments that are critical to reduced costs in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

US regulatory standards also drive what kind of technology Australia can readily access. Indeed the energy efficiency of your own home refrigerator is dictated by a US standard which Australia subsequently adopts. Some people keen to project the air of a wise cynic will suggest that this election doesn’t really matter, that the US is dominated by large corporates’ interests who ultimately dictate the policy tune.

To these people I ask: do you really think there would have been no difference on climate change policy between George W. Bush and Al Gore? That’s what these same wise cynics said before a few hanging chads in Florida stalled any meaningful federal government action on US emissions for eight long years.

Bush became the ultimate excuse for inaction in Australia and the globe more generally. “Why should a small country like Australia be taking action when US government is not?”, became the ultimate excuse for John Howard from 2001 until it wore thin with the electorate in late-2006.

Bush ignored the advice of his own appointed EPA administrator Christine Whitman and Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill to introduce an emissions cap-and-trade scheme. Neither were greenie radicals with both holding impressive Republican and pro-business pedigrees — Whitman was previously Republican governor of New Jersey, and O’Neill was CEO of Alcoa prior to becoming treasury secretary and also served as an advisor to President Gerald Ford.

Bush also stonewalled on legislation requiring the Department of Energy to implement upgraded energy efficiency standards for electrical appliances and equipment. This effectively stalled progress internationally on energy efficiency standards, except in Japan.

And his government fought tooth and nail against a Supreme Court ruling that increased concentrations of CO2 represented an endangerment to human health (the EPA endangerment finding is well worth reading for those who currently get their science from Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones). This court ruling that CO2 emissions do represent a danger to human health has obligated the US EPA to regulate CO2 emissions from motor vehicles and power stations.

The failure to get a carbon emissions cap-and-trade scheme through the congress will always hang over the Obama administration as a major failure. But it shouldn’t damn him.

I remember at the time Obama took office it seemed inevitable cap-and-trade legislation would pass. The Waxman-Markey Bill had passed the House of Representatives. The Democrats held not just a majority in the Senate, but indeed the critical 60 seats required to defeat a filibuster (a stonewalling tactic where legislation is endlessly debated, preventing the legislation from ever being voted on). In addition the Republican presidential nominee defeated by Obama, John McCain, was not just a supporter of an emissions cap-and-trade scheme, he had drafted and introduced his own legislation on such a scheme (in conjunction with Joe Lieberman).

However critics of Obama forget that he had to fight on multiple battle fronts of huge political importance. He confronted the worst economic conditions and financial instability since the Great Depression back in 1929. He lost substantial skin fighting for desperately needed economic stimulus measures. He lost further skin against fierce lobbying and ideological opposition to universal health insurance, which the rest of the developed world has taken for granted for decades. And lastly he lost the 60th Democratic seat in the Senate when Teddy Kennedy became terminally ill, just at the critical point when cap-and-trade legislation was being debated in the Senate. And for the past nearly two years he’s had to deal with a Congress dominated by Republicans that have been dragged to the rabid right by the Tea Party movement.

In spite of this, Obama has achieved some progress.

The EPA has moved proactively on the Supreme Court endangerment finding. It has introduced fuel economy standards that will mean petroleum consumption in America will decline in absolute terms out to 2035 – an extraordinary achievement. The EPA has also moved to regulate coal-fired power station emissions within a scope heavily constrained by a concern for counter-attack by the Congress. The economic stimulus measures helped the US install record amounts of wind in 2009, in spite of a drying up of finance. Solar PV has also grown.

In the meantime there should be little doubt about the consequences if the Republicans were to dominate in this election. We’re already seeing one wind power factory closure after another due to the Congress’ failure to extend the wind production tax credit. Also several Republican state governments have sought to appeal the EPA’s efforts to control emissions. But thankfully the three-judge panel hearing the case unanimously dismissed arguments from industry that the science of global warming was not well supported, declaring: “The EPA is not required to reprove the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question.”

In order to gain the Republican Presidential nomination, Romney has had to repudiate his environmentally progressive past as Governor of Massachusetts. Indeed it was during his time as governor that the Massachusetts government led the Supreme Court CO2 endangerment case against George Bush’s administration. Yet now he rails against the EPA’s efforts to follow through on the court’s ruling.

While the real Romney may have been a good president for addressing climate change, he is chained to a party over-run by anti-science religious zealots.

*This article was originally published at Climate Spectator

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