Climate Reform in the United States: A lesson in politicking

Excerpted from Policy Options, February 2011 Obama and climate policy reform: A continuing education in American politicking by Colin Robertson

The strange death of climate reform legislation is a cautionary tale in American politicking. It is a reminder that the will and weight of the presidency can be thwarted by the counterweights of region, money and public indifference. Until we make a technological breakthrough, we face a ‘grand mess’ of federal regulation, litigation and continuing incrementalism at the state level. Canadians should pay heed. How America manages its grids and pipelines and prices carbon all have a direct effect on Canadian interests. We need to leverage our  our partnership to be, not an American clone, but ‘compatibly Canadian’.


…Obama is learning the congressional horse-trading that Lyndon Johnson understood so well but, on climate reform, he has yet to persuade Americans on the urgency for action. The percentage of Americans that believe global warming should be a top priority began falling even as Obama began his presidential bid. Today, global warming ranks near the bottom of public priorities. Americans are unconvinced of the need for action, especially when they are asked to pay for it.

Salience is what makes politicians pay attention and the public focus is on jobs and the economy. Attitudinal change is hard. Since Richard Nixon, administrations have sought to deal with the energy problem but failed. In his 1979 “malaise” speech, Jimmy Carter got to the heart of the issue when he argued that to face up to the energy crisis Americans first had to face up to the crisis in their own values and “the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” And of course, he lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan, by a landslide.

De-carbonizing the global energy system is an epic challenge. The late Nobel laureate Stephen Snyder argued that sequencing is vital, starting with demonstrable steps on a clean power plant and then building support for broader, grander structures like a carbon tax. In reaffirming that the environment remains one of his top priorities, Obama told Rolling Stone last October that he would roll out new policy “in chunks” rather than “some sort of comprehensive omnibus legislation.” He promised to “stay on this because it is good for our economy, it’s good for our national security, and, ultimately, it’s good for our environment.”  Climate reform is unlikely to be accomplished in one presidency. Doing it in ‘chunks’ recognizes the realities of regionalism, polarization and the requirement for attitudinal change.

Curtailing America’s largest source of carbon emissions – coal-fired electricity,  will also be driven by other factors.  Many of the most carbon-intensive plants are nearing end-of-life. A host of other factors, including the impending EPA regulations on mercury and other air pollutants and access to reserves of natural gas, may hasten conversion to cleaner burning fuels even in the absence of carbon regulation.

A necessary step will be to re-frame the debate from that of a pollution problem to an innovation opportunity. We don’t yet have the technology to give us clean energy on a large scale, but the US is well positioned to drive the demand for it. There is a growing chorus within industry and the environmental movement calling for an energy revolution. Alternatives – solar panels, biomass, wind mills and tidal power – are part of the solution. So is conservation.

State-inspired process, including the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the North-East and the Western Climate Initiative that also involves four Canadian provinces will continue to innovate and reform. Environmentalists look to California, where an oil industry- inspired initiative to roll back climate change legislation failed in the November mid-terms.  The counter-effort rallied Democrats and Republicans, including former Secretary of State George Shultz. In December, the California Air Resources Board voted to adopt the cap and trade regulations for California’s global warming law. Other states are moving forward through legislation and regulation. Technology funds for clean energy development are growing in popularity.

Arguably, Obama has already accomplished part of what he set out to achieve. The stimulus and other financial measures are putting close to a hundred billion dollars into research and development. Why not take on the mantle of energy innovator and with support from the Pentagon and industry frame it as an issue of national security?  America is still highly dependent on energy imports, but what if that could be balanced by new export opportunities for cleaner energy technologies, products and services?

For Canadians, the American drama is more than a spectator sport. Our interests are huge. Decisions relating to ‘smart grids’, low-carbon fuels, pipelines and renewable energy standards for hydropower matter to our continuing prosperity. We’ve harmonized on tailpipe emissions, we partner on projects like carbon sequestration and through the Clean Energy Dialogue but with differences in our energy mix, our strategic goal must continue to be ‘compatibility Canadian’, rather than an American clone.

We possess intellectual power and ideas in places like the National Roundtable on Environment and the Economy, through industry associations like the Canadian Council on Chief Executives and the Energy Policy Institute of Canada, the Canada School for Energy and the Environment and in our environmentalists, including the Pembina Institute and Pollution Probe. The Boreal Forest Agreement is proof that industry and the environment can be creatively productive. Take this talent on the road and let’s show the world that we can be a global ‘superpower’ in climate reform.

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