The news coming out of the meetings leading up to Copenhagen have been somewhat negative lately, with many prognosticators stating that the world will not be able to agree to a new climate change treaty in December. In particular, the developing world continues to balk at being asked to agree to binding greenhouse gas reduction targets, and is lobbying for far more many from the develoepd world to assist the transition to a low carbon economy and for compensation for climate harms (such as rising sea levels which will wipe out many small island nations).
What has been somewhat surprising to me is how much of the complaints are directed at the United States while the world seems to wait breathlessly for the US to take a definitive step on a comprehensive federal climate change law. When President Obama was elected, there seemed to be a collective worldwide relief among climate change negotiators who expected swift action from the United States, and at first that is exactly what they got. A movement to allow California to regulate automobiles, a new push for legislation, and the possibility that the EPA might step in to regulate was enough to get talks moving quickly on the international front. Though it was never public, it even appeared that China and India both might be willing to agree to binding cuts on their own emissions assuming the United States would move quickly and take the lead. But somewhere between Waxman-Markey and Boxer-Kerry, much of this hope, and the goodwill towards the United States evaporated.
Sadly, I believe the main reason for this was a profound misunderstanding of the way the legislative process in the United States would work in the first place. Not that I blame the rest of the world. Less than 1% of the US population could tell you the procedure for a bill becoming law, with committee hearings, mark-ups, and reconciliation and so on. Our baroque legislative process is extremely confusing to the European Union, China, India, and most of the world. So when the process didn’t seem to move as soon as the rest of the world expected, disappointment and distrust set in, and this in turn has effected real progress on international agreement. Some of the problem with progress isn’t just the process, but the focus on health care, the particularly vitriolic relationships in the Senate, and the failure of the Obama administration to do a better job of explaining what is going on.
In reality, by next year, the US will have a very strict climate change regime, whether it comes from comprehensive legislation or from the EPA. But because the administration prefers new legislation, it hasn’t emphasized the part that the EPA could play and thus help ease some of the international confusion and distrust. At this point, when it looks as if there will not be a Senate vote by Copenhagen, the US should put what regulatory cards it does have on the table, instead of trying to show Senate progress by very small steps like moving climate change out of committee while the Republicans were boycotting. The Obama administration could spell out exactly how the EPA is going to regulate greenhouse gases, showing the rest of the world just how comprehensive this can be. It may also be the final push needed for comprehensive legislation early next year.