US coal stands in the way of Copenhagen


A year after the 1992 treaty, President Bill Clinton tried to pass an energy tax that would have helped the US to begin reducing its dependence on fossil fuels. The proposal not only failed, but also triggered a political backlash. When the Kyoto protocol was adopted in 1997, Clinton did not even send it to the US Senate for ratification, knowing that it would be rejected. President George Bush repudiated the Kyoto protocol in 2001 and did essentially nothing on climate change during his presidency.

There are several reasons for US inaction – including ideology and scientific ignorance – but a lot comes down to one word: coal. No fewer than 25 states produce coal, which not only generates income, jobs and tax revenue, but also provides a disproportionately large share of their energy.

Per capita carbon emissions in US coal states tend to be much higher than the national average. Since addressing climate change is first and foremost directed at reduced emissions from coal – the most carbon-intensive of all fuels – America’s coal states are especially fearful about the economic implications of any controls (though the oil and automobile industries are not far behind).

The US political system poses special problems as well. To ratify a treaty requires the support of 67 of the Senate’s 100 members, a nearly impossible hurdle. The Republican party, with its 40 Senate seats, is simply filled with too many ideologues – and, indeed, too many senators intent on derailing any Obama initiative – to offer enough votes to reach the 67-vote threshold. Moreover, the Democratic party includes senators from coal and oil states who are unlikely to support decisive action.

The idea this time around is to avoid the need for 67 votes, at least at the start, by focusing on domestic legislation rather than a treaty. Under the US constitution, domestic legislation (as opposed to international treaties) requires a simple majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to be sent to the president for signature. Getting 50 votes for a climate change bill (with a tie vote broken by the vice president) is almost certain.

But opponents of legislation can threaten to filibuster (speak for an indefinite period and thereby paralyse Senate business), which can be ended only if 60 senators support bringing the legislation to a vote. Otherwise, proposed legislation can be killed, even if it has the support of a simple majority. That will certainly be true of domestic climate change legislation. Securing 60 votes is a steep hill to climb.

Political analysts know that the votes will depend on individual senators’ ideologies, states’ voting patterns, and states’ dependence on coal relative to other energy sources. Based on these factors, one analysis counts 50 likely Democratic yes votes and 34 Republican no votes, leaving 16 votes still in play. Ten of the swing votes are Democrats, mainly from coal states; the other six are Republicans who conceivably could vote with the president and the Democratic majority.

Until recently, many believed that China and India would be the real holdouts in the global climate change negotiations. Yet China has announced a set of major initiatives – in solar, wind, nuclear, and carbon-capture technologies – to reduce its economy’s greenhouse gas intensity.

India, long feared to be a spoiler, has said that it is ready to adopt a significant national action plan to move towards a trajectory of sustainable energy. The two nations have agreed to co-ordinate efforts on renewable energy and research, and the US is under growing pressure to act. With developing countries displaying their readiness to reach a global deal, could the US Senate really prove to be the world’s last great holdout?

Obama has tools at his command to bring the US into the global mainstream on climate change. First, he is negotiating side deals with holdout senators to cushion the economic impact on coal states and to increase US investments in the research and development, and eventually adoption, of clean coal technologies.

Second, he can command the Environmental Protection Agency to impose administrative controls on coal plants and automobile producers even if the Congress does not pass new legislation. The administrative route might turn out to be even more important than the legislative route.

The politics of the US Senate should not obscure the larger point: America has acted irresponsibly since signing the climate treaty in 1992. It is the world’s largest and most powerful country, and the one most responsible for the climate change to this point, it has behaved without any sense of duty – to its own citizens, to the world, and to future generations.

Even coal state senators should be ashamed. Sure, their states need some extra help, but narrow interests should not be permitted to endanger our planet’s future. It is time for the US to rejoin the global family.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009

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