In attempting to find a new way to approach global warming policy that avoids the problems President Clinton found with Kyoto, President Barack Obama has instead found himself following the same path. It will likely lead to the same effective result: not enough action to satisfy his supporters on the issue, and enough to galvanize the opposition.
When the Clinton Administration signed the Kyoto Protocol on 12 November 1998, it did so in the full knowledge that it would never be ratified by the U.S. Senate. That body had passed a resolution the year before by 95-0 saying that the United States should not be a signatory to any commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions unless the treaty "also mandates new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties." As Kyoto could not have been agreed without an exemption for developing countries, the American signature was meaningless.
President Obama came into office seemingly determined to avoid this problem at Copenhagen. Part of his strategy was, it seemed originally, to take to Copenhagen a commitment from the U.S. Congress to reduce emissions as the basis for a framework to replace Kyoto. It has not worked out that way. Instead, he goes to Copenhagen knowing that things are still being debated in the Senate. Coming back with a piece of paper that commits the United States to anything more than the Senate is willing to accept will be seen as an attempt to bounce the Senate into action, and is likely to be counterproductive. Coming back with less is also likely to dampen demands for action.
This is important because the Senate is finely balanced. Senators have heard from their colleagues in the House of Representatives just how furious the reaction was in many parts of the country to the passage of the Waxman-Markey bill earlier in the year. Indeed, votes for that bill have already reportedly led to the announced retirement of several "Blue Dog" Democrats and serious re-election issues for others. This makes the hunt for 60 votes for a climate bill extremely difficult, all the more so as the election nears.
There is also a backdrop of plummeting poll numbers when it comes to popular support for legislative action. Such action has never been a high priority among the U.S. public, even when clear majorities admitted belief in anthropogenic global warming and told pollsters it was a serious issue. Political action on global warming regularly came towards the bottom of the priority list even among other environmental issues. Polls also revealed that people were reluctant to pay anything for action, even as little as a "postage stamp a day." Now, however, even the numbers of respondents telling pollsters that man is responsible for global warming are slipping.
There appear to be two reasons for this. First, there is a general feeling that something is wrong with climate science. The fact that temperatures have not increased in statistically significant terms for a decade is something most people recognize. The "ClimateGate" e-mail leak has also become something of a phenomenon, with far more people interested in it than in the Tiger Woods story, if internet statistics are any guide. These related factors appear to be making people more skeptical of whether science suggests action is necessary. Secondly, the economic crisis has focused people's minds on the cost of action. For over 2 decades, Americans routinely told pollsters that action to protect the environment was worth a cost to the economy. However, today 61% say stimulating the economy must come first, with only 29% saying the economy is more important.
This places Senators in a real bind. Cap and trade is firmly framed in the public mind as costly. Democratic Senators in states where manufacturing or extractive industries are important may face serious electoral consequences for supporting cap and trade just now.
At the same time, if they back away from the cliff and fail to pass a bill containing cap and trade, there is very little likelihood of the Senate being so favorable to the principle again in the near future. This is why environmental groups that have previously regarded cap and trade with suspicion now regard it as the only plausible vehicle to get some form of emissions restriction on the statute books.
The Senate is therefore likely to do what it does best: talk. There may be some committee action on global warming--hearings, perhaps even mark-ups in a committee or two--but substantive action on cap and trade is unlikely in the near future and extremely difficult to foresee as the 2010 election approaches. In this respect, a failure to agree to anything meaningful in Copenhagen may be the best outcome for reluctant Senators, even if it also signals the death of cap and trade.
Ian Murray is Vice-President for Strategy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington DC.