July 07, 2010

Cancun Week: Can Congress Pass Climate Change Legislation?

Last week, President Obama met with a bi-partisan group of Senators about new legislation to address climate change and create a new energy policy for the United States, a meeting that was postponed the week before last after the excitement over the McChrystal affair.  U.S. climate change legislation has been stalled in the Senate since last year even though the House of Representatives passed a sweeping piece of legislation known as the Waxman-Markey bill, which would institute a cap-and-trade measure to reduce carbon emissions by 17 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050.  Senators Graham, Lieberman and Kerry spent months at the beginning of the year crafting a Senate version of the bill, though the bill unfortunately lost support as other domestic issues came to the forefront.

With a renewed sense of urgency, heightened by the environmental, economic and social costs of the BP Gulf oil spill, President Obama called the meeting to try to chart a new path forward.  However, the President’s insistence that a cap-and-trade provision be included in any new energy legislation was met with resistance from Republicans, who largely prefer to pass a pared down version that would include funding for “green” technologies like solar, wind and hydropower, but would set no emissions cap.

Congress’s ability to pass a climate change bill that caps carbon emissions could potentially have a huge impact on the outcome of the Cancun Conference, in part because U.S. negotiators cannot make any promises about U.S. emissions reductions unless the agreement could be approved by Congress (and give the state of current domestic legislation, the prospects are not great). 

The ability to pass an energy bill may hinge on public opinion.  By that measure, it has become increasingly difficult since the close of the Copenhagen Conference last year for emissions-capping legislation to pass.  According to Pew Research Center poll in April 2008, 7 percent of Americans believed that there is “solid evidence that earth is warming,” while by October 2009 5 percent believed so, and that amongst Republicans, only 35 percent believed so in October 2009 (although a more recent poll by George Mason University found that concern about climate change is once again on the rise, perhaps indicating that the bill may have a greater chance of passing today than it did nine months ago).

The vacillation of public opinion on climate change could be attributed to different reasons. For example, the controversies associated with the IPCC’s findings that I described in my first post, as well as a series of leaked emails from a hacked e-mail account at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Britain that included discussions about whether certain scientific data should be released, may have caused skepticism among some in the public that data on climate change, such as that presented in the 2007 IPCC Report, can be trusted (although it should be noted that just last week, this scientist was cleared of any wrong-doing).  Will blogged about another view presented by Chris Mooney of The Washington Post, who argues that views on climate change usually fall along partisan lines, and scientists must have a better understanding of what motivates public concern and how to better communicate information to the public, specifically demonstrating what is at stake for all of us if we ignore what the science is telling us.  Others like Climate Progress blog argue that the public has been confused by deliberate disinformation campaigns.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that public opinion in the United States poses an obstacle to passing a comprehensive piece of climate change legislation.  This in turn could prove a significant threat to negotiations in Cancun and negotiators’ ability to reach a legally binding emissions reduction treaty any time soon. 

As I mentioned in my last post, it could force negotiators to focus on more universally agreed-upon issues like deforestation. Time will tell.

Tomorrow: the U.S./China divide on climate change.