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United States

Feb 14, 2013

Obama's new global warming push leaves Abbott in the cold

Barack Obama championed a cap-and-trade scheme on climate change yesterday. With a hostile Congress, he'll struggle to achieve it. Still it leaves the Tea Party-esque Tony Abbott behind on climate policy.

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Here’s a statistic that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, the former trainee Catholic seminarian who insists that no other nation is pricing carbon, might find interesting. The number of people living in countries with carbon taxes or emission trading schemes will rise to about one billion by the end of the year. There are almost as many of them in the world as there are Catholics.

Abbott may wish this fact out of existence, but if US President Barack Obama has his way — as announced in his State of the Union (SOTU) address yesterday — and the world’s biggest economy introduces a market-based system to limit carbon emissions, that global carbon headcount would jump by 300 million or so by the end of 2014.

If China goes ahead with its pilot carbon schemes in a bunch of provinces and cities, and prepares for a wider scheme, that would add another 1.4 billion. Abbott may find himself taking Australian voters to a double dissolution election — where he would seek to win what would would effectively be a referendum on climate action — by pretending the world is not acting on climate change. To paraphrase and lightly censor a remark made by Climate Change Minister Greg Combet yesterday, it’s a load of bollocks.

So what did Obama say yesterday?

“I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

Obama was expected to focus on climate change policies in SOTU, after making it a central point of his inauguration address, but the fact that he so specifically championed cap-and-trade has taken many by surprise.

Of course, Obama has said this before. His message after his first election and in the lead-up to the UN’s Copenhagen climate conference was: the climate science was in, the world needed to act, the US could not afford China and others to get ahead on clean energy; and if a carbon price wasn’t approved by Congress, Obama would take other measures.

Here he is saying much the same thing. He didn’t invest much in climate change in his first presidency because he expended so much political capital on Obamacare — and the fear is that he might do the same on gun control.

But this time, Obama does not have to worry about seeking re-election, and this is a President very much focused on his legacy. Even in his first term, behind the scenes Obama was making good on at least some of his vows to regulate on climate; the extension of tax credits to renewable energy, an extensive loans program for new technologies, and tighter emissions and efficiency standards means that the US has, sort of, kept touch with China. It installed as much wind energy capacity as China in 2012, and about half as much solar PV.

More importantly, the US has lowered its emissions over the last four years. Some of this is the result of the shale gas boom. As David Roberts from Grist noted overnight, Obama’s policy has been to reduce fossil fuel consumption and increase fossil fuel production. Whatever you think of that, the gas boom has given Obama critical room to move.

A bill on a carbon price is to be introduced into the US Senate as early as today (US time) by independent Senator Bernie Sanders and Democrat Barbara Boxer. Details are scant, but it seems likely to be a form of carbon tax that would  impose a “fee on carbon pollution emissions” and fund “historic investments in energy efficiency and sustainable energy technologies such as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass”. It would provide rebates to consumers to offset any efforts by oil, coal or gas companies to raise prices.

Sounds a lot like Australia’s scheme. Of course, with the numbers in the Congress and the implacable opposition of the Tea-Party block of Republicans, it has no chance of passage. That means Obama will go back to his policy of executive, or direct action.

But there’s a big difference between the direct action that Obama envisages — tighter emission controls on coal-fired generators, ambitious energy efficiency standards in cars, a doubling of renewable energy targets, a doubling of “energy productivity”, as well as a continuation of the loans program to push through new technology innovation — than the wishy-washy “Direct Action” plan of Abbott. He remains bizarrely fixated on his 18,000-strong “green army” and working bees. Abbott wants to give handouts of taxpayers’ money to achieve the sort of efficiencies from polluters that Obama will make compulsory.

The man chosen by the Republicans to rebut Obama’s speech was Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Tea Party favourite dubbed the “crown prince” of the movement. Just as Abbott earlier this month wondered why the carbon price had not changed the climate after six months, Rubio dipped into the climate denier’s handbook by claiming the government cannot control the weather.

“We can pass a bunch of laws that will destroy our economy, but it isn’t going to change the weather,” said Rubio to his preferred audience on Fox News. And this is what Abbott had to say in his stump speech in January: “Isn’t it bizarre that this government thinks that somehow raising the price of electricity is going to clean up our environment, stop bushfires, stop floods, stop droughts?”

And just as Abbott has vowed to dump the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and incentives for the new technologies, Rubio railed against “wasting more taxpayer money on so-called ‘clean energy’ companies like Solyndra”. The extent to which Abbott is in lock-step with the Tea Party pin-up boy is uncanny.

Bill Becker, the executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, says Obama is very likely the “last American president who can keep us from plunging helplessly off the climate cliff. Judging by his Inaugural and State of the Union speeches, he gets that.” But Becker said the weakness of acting by executive decree is that these decisions can be rescinded by his successor, or a future Congress. This, of course, is exactly what Abbott proposes to do in Australia.

*This article was originally published at RenewEconomy

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