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Copenhagen: Slipping Past A Tipping Point

By Bill Henderson

01 June, 2009

The opportunity to build a global treaty at Copenhagen in December to mitigate climate change is slipping away as the US once again refuses to recognize the seriousness of this humanity threatening problem and refuses to lead in taking necessary mitigation steps in reducing their own emissions.

The watering down of the Waxman-Markey cap and trade legislation and the Obama Administrations choice of cosmetic action like higher emission standards for new vehicles instead of difficult but needed restrictions keeping fossil fuels, especially coal, in the ground is a signal to China and other Group 22 developing countries: Copenhagen will probably be another Kyoto, a failure to escape business as usual to emission reduction of a scale needed to avert dangerous climate change even at this late date.

By attempting to shoehorn climate change mitigation into continuing political and economic BAU, the new President of Hope is wasting his opportunity to lead in turning the corner on climate change and by December this will be clear to the world. A year from now it won't matter if his Admin can accomplish what Clinton and Gore couldn't do in ratifying the new global treaty because the emission reduction strategy and targets will be too weak and watered down, too susceptible to political and economic subversion, to stay under 450 ppm / 2C let alone scramble back under 350 ppm before the Arctic ice cap melts and we go over the tipping point to runaway climate change.

The Waxman-Markey legislation and the debate about this attempt to use the cap and trade instrument to reduce emissions clearly shows how myopic America is about climate change; how strong the blinders of economic orthodoxy and denial are still at this late date in America who must be world leader if dangerous climate change is to be averted.

Waxman-Markey is a House bill to put a cap on emissions and accelerate the development of renewable energy and increase energy efficiency. Originally the cap target was a 20% reduction on 2005 levels by 2020 and the cap would apply to all major sources of CO2 pollution and the permits would be auctioned. .

The Obama Admin unlike the previous Admin is in favour of climate change mitigation but comes to office pre-occupied with the economic meltdown and with a heavy legislative agenda after eight years of government not in the interest of the average American. The Obama Admin supports Waxman-Markey as part of needed action on climate change but their messaging signals that climate change mitigation is not life and death but secondary to the economy and even healthcare and other social legislation.

The Democrats control Congress but legacy industry lobbys still control Congressman, and even Democrat support of Waxman-Markey had to be won by watering down both the cap target to around 17% by 2020 (which in effect won't be achieved by 2036) and by allocating a large percentage of permits free and allowing questionable offsets.

The present ( now distinctly B- bill) still faces a long, easily subverted process before it could reach the White House and be signed into a functioning law and even then it will take years to apply, a process that even in good, stable, economic times is ripe for subversion.

Informed publics in China, Europe, everywhere are watching. Is the US serious about climate change? No, not really.

In the US, amongst those who recognize climate change as a danger needing action, Al Gore and James Hansen represent the division over this particular legislation:

“I think they’ve maintained the integrity of the bill. In its current form as I understand it, I have no doubt that it will accomplish the result we need to begin this transition toward renewable energy, conservation, efficiency, and renewed U.S. leadership in global negotiations.” Al Gore

Gore is Pollyanna hopeful like most Americans concerned about climate change. Continuing the misplaced Kyoto-style optimism despite the history of failure, Gore continues to advocate delusional paths to mitigation of a scale needed within BAU. Gore and Big ENGOs are unwilling or unable to consider that the American way of life has to be not only negotiable but that this way of life is morally wrong, indefensible. Gore is too astute a politician and too wedded to the present politics, too wedded to being successful in BAU, to lead.

“The revised Waxman-Markey climate bill is too watered down to qualify as a positive step for avoiding catastrophic climate disruption.” ­ James Hansen

But for all his leadership about keeping coal in the ground Hansen proposes instead a “tax and dividend” approach that would tax fossil fuels at the point of extraction and distribute the revenue from that tax to citizens. Hansen like Gore refuses to accept that economic instruments within political and economic BAU cannot and will not lead to mitigation of a scale necessary.

Putting a price on carbon in useful market mechanisms will have to be a key part of any successful mitigation strategy, but carbon taxes, cap and trade or cap and dividend will each be watered down and subverted without leadership in escaping political and economic BAU where such measures are clearly easily subvertable. China and the rest of the world are watching.

Refusing to consider any action but those that are possible within American-centric BAU is signalling to the world that the US is not yet serious about the climate change danger and about taking the mitigation steps necessary and American lack of leadership now is crafting a Copenhagen treaty that will be even less effective than the end result of Waxman-Markey.

American leadership is desperately needed. Without strong American action showing leadership there will be no effective global emission reduction and catastrophe.

Examples of needed action showing leadership would be:

- a Draconian schedule for an end to all coal production and use (without working carbon capture and sequestering).

-the Obama Admin could use the present economic malaise in the auto industry to lead in renouncing the car culture as god and economic engine; a plan to reorganize GM and Ford as factories for an electrified mass transit system replacing highways and cars and trucks - hybrid, electric, hydrogen as well as gas - which could point the world to a future different from just moving the industry from Detroit to China and India, to a future that wasn't the mirage of suburbs and malls sprawling across Asia and the rest of the developing world.

-the Obama Admin could signal that climate change (and the end of cheap energy and ecosystem degradation on a finite planet) requires a global Green New Deal where co-operation and innovation is needed immediately to establish '100 mile' economic zones where relocalization and cradle to cradle production could much better use and recycle now preciously scarce raw materials and where trade and competitive advantage exists only when all costs now not presently quantified are included. Not protectionism per se but the necessary secure floor of sustainable economic activity that would allow for a secure global economy for the 21st century.

Such action by the leading global economic power and leading carbon polluter would open up paths to a real and effective global climate change action plan.

Of course, the Obama Admin would have to build a much more robust consensus on taking action on climate change.

Of course, the Obama Admin would have to make the case that climate change (and the end of cheap fossil fuel energy and the end of an ever expanding material economy on a finite planet) is an emergency and that BAU is no longer an option. And that there is a better American way of life in the future and that, in fact, the present American BAU is a deathtrap not only for Americans but for all humanity and most of the species with which we currently share Creation.

Realists, the politically and economically constrained, will hoot in derision. Unfortunately, even though they know better than most that climate change is an emergency, Gore and Hansen and their many followers will continue to try and find solution within a continuation of a way of life that has no future. But failure is not an option. There very obviously is no emission reduction of any where near a scale necessary within the present politics. Americums (in Friedman's classic definition of the global middle class) by their success have created an emergency situation and America must lead NOW and not just fiddle with half measures if humanity is to have a future.

How can we empower the President of Hope and get America out of denial before it is too late?

Bill (at)


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