Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Climate Change Mitigation Policies

President Obama has quite a few very major political and legislative issues to deal with in the next year or two, but this one on climate change may well prove to be the most complex and challenging. I'll explain why.

Between December 7th and 18th delegates consisting of scientists, environmentalists, political negotiators, and government leaders representing more than 100 countries, including all the major players, met at the highly publicized climate change conference held in Copenhagen, Denmark. The conference took place essentially to follow up an earlier conference held in Kyoto, Japan in 1997, at which 187 countries, excluding the U. S., signed and ratified the so-called Kyoto Protocol dealing with actions to combat global warming and reducing harmful atmospheric emissions, especially carbon dioxide.

The recent Copenhagen conference, it was originally hoped, would conclude with a more specific global action plan to cut emissions and other related steps to help stabilize climates around the planet and thereby reduce the very serious risks associated with global warming, including especially the real possibility of a substantial rise in ocean levels leading eventually to massive flooding of coastal areas, a significant reduction in our critical global water supply and very volatile and harmful weather patterns. With respect to ocean levels, some scientific studies have concluded that water levels could rise at least 3 feet, and possibly to as much as 5-6 meters by the end of this century! That would be catastrophic.

While the Copenhagen conference was very useful in obtaining general agreement on the seriousness of the risks the delegates were discussing, sharing information on desirable action steps, and laying out the national interests and policy directions of the major players and regional groups of other countries, the conference did not achieve agreement of a specific global action plan. The expectation now is that President Obama will work with the Congress to come up with legislation laying out the U. S. government's plan some time late in the first half of this year and that another global conference will convene in the second half of the year with the objectives of agreeing on a plan that will include specific emission control commitments of individual countries and a satisfactory financing mechanism that will assist developing countries meet their commitments.

This is a highly complex and challenging issue for the Obama Administration and the Congress for a number of important reasons. While the great majority of recognized climate scientists, environmentalists and heads of state are very convinced that global warming is a very serious problem requiring a series of urgent, far-reaching and costly action steps world-wide, a vocal minority, including many Republican Party leaders, view it as a much less alarming and natural phenomenon. Global warming, its causes, potential consequences and appropriate mitigation measures are very complicated subjects involving many different areas of scientific knowledge, research and analysis, as well as highly technical climate related computer modeling. It is therefore very difficult for most of us to fully understand and follow the debate. However, given the above points, I don't see how one can not reasonably agree that it must be a high priority of world leaders to move forward urgently on an effective, pragmatic action plan.

It will be difficult for the Obama Administration for many good reasons. He has many other high priority policy issues to deal that must be judged even more important, at least in the short term, starting with additional more bipartisan efforts to stabilize the economy, generating quality jobs, and reducing the unemployment rate. Republican leaders will likely withhold support, in part due to a different view of the seriousness of the global warming problem and anticipated higher governmental spending to combat it, in part due to lobbying by the business sector who are legitimately concerned with higher costs for them associated with compliance with the expected action plans.

Another big reason it will be difficult is stubborn resistance from China and India to equitably participate in the global action plan, though they are very major emission pollutors, because they feel the more developed countries, especially the U. S., are primarily responsible for global warming problem we face. In their biased view, the developed countries should therefore commit to relatively greater emission controls and pay the lion's share of financial assistance needed by less developed nations. That will be very hard for budget-strapped developed countries to swallow, particularly considering the vast financial resources of China and status as the world's largest atmospheric polluter.

Additionally, it doesn't help that Obama and the still Democrat controlled Congress are faring poorly in public opinion polls and facing stiff challenges in the upcoming mid-term elections in November. The general public will most likely not support a costly global warming action plan until they are much less concerned about the economy, see meaningful reductions in unemployment rates, and gain more satisfaction with their personal financial and job security situations.

Over the next several months Obama needs to have his lieutenants working behind the scenes on building support for a sensible global action plan. This should include trying to build an even greater consensus among leading scientists about the problem. Even more important, though, is working with the major developing countries, especially China and India, but also Brazil and Indonesia, to obtain greater pragmatic agreement on the best plan.

However, clearly the top priority needs to be very specific and meaningful progress on the key domestic issues: the economy and jobs! He will most probably not be successful if he and his cabinet and staff, as well as the leading Democrats in Congress, do not reach out and collaborate much more closely with Republican leaders and independents in both parties.

No comments: