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Op-Ed

Event Summary: U.S. Climate Policy

Speaking today at a panel sponsored by the Brookings Institution and the Pew Center for Global Climate Change, scholars and policymakers attempted to find new ways to address climate change both in the United States and abroad.

James Connaughton, chairman of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, supplemented Secretary of Abraham’s earlier discussion of U.S. technology programs by fleshing out a broader array of policies that the Bush Administration is supporting.

Among them:

  • the progress being made through various bilateral and regional climate change agreements with key allies and emitters.
  • the Administration’s “Clear Skies” initiative and the energy bill before the Congress that Connaughton said promises to lessen air pollution and reduce the rate of growth of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • the Bush Administration backing of stronger fuel efficiency or CAFE standards for SUV’s.
  • the Administration’s support for forests and farmland that sequester carbon in the ground, another policy likely to help slow the concentration of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.
  • U.S. leadership on international climate change. Connaughton said that half of all international investment in climate science is invested by United States.

Connaughton said that it was time to “get past” the Kyoto treaty, the international agreement on climate change that the Bush administration has refused to support, much to the chagrin of many both at home and abroad. Connaughton said that U.S. support of the treaty would simply “shift pollution someplace else,” where emission standards might not be as strict as the United States.

Other panelists agreed that Kyoto was largely a dead issue in the United States, including Brookings Senior Fellow Nigel Purvis, who said the U.S. should pursue parallel approaches to international cooperation in the United Nations because new treaties may not be able to muster the sixty-six votes needed to ratify the treaty. Purvis dissented from Connaughton, however, by calling for mandatory domestic climate change regulation, such as a ‘cap and trade’ system. Elliot Diringer, director of the Pew Center’s International Strategies, concurred and suggested that new negotiations should focus on the major emitters. He said any international agreement on climate change must be in the national interest of major participants including the U.S.

Congressman Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) said that, within the House “very few members are focused on climate change.” He remained upbeat, however, saying that as members become more engaged on climate change and learn the facts of the issue that they will do the right thing.

Given that political reality, panelists took turns trying to come up with a sensible strategy on climate change that would resonate not only at home, but abroad as well.

Technological advances in providing cleaner energy had the greatest potential to reduce pollution, according to panelists, because human consumption patterns would likely remain unchanged and developing countries would tap their significant coal reserves regardless of the environment impact.

“To ask developing countries not to use their coal reserves is a sheer fantasy,” World Bank Group President James Wolfensohn said. “It’s not going to happen, and it’s hypocritical for industrialized nations to make such a request.” Wolfensohn said that the issue of climate change disproportionately affected developing countries and called it a “real crisis.” The solution, according to Wolfensohn and others, lay in using technology to make economic growth and development as clean as possible.

British Energy Minister Stephen Timms put an equal amount of faith in technology’s promise, but cautioned panelists from placing too many eggs in one basket.

“Technology is critically important,” Timms said, “but on its own it isn’t enough.” Timms said that citizens, governments, and businesses everywhere had to be committed to climate change in order to truly make a difference. He highlighted the ambitious goals the UK government has set for itself to tackle climate change and move towards a decarbonized economy, including the country’s long-term goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 60 percent by 2050 and the more immediate goal of increasing the share of electricity provided by renewables to 10 percent by 2010. Timms spoke of his own region’s struggles against climate change, including the massive floods endured throughout Europe in 2002 and last year’s heat wave that claimed the lives of nearly 20,000 people.

Ultimately, panelists agreed that environmental progress would not be achieved through command and control regulatory systems that mandated particular kinds of technology. Governments could, however, make it easier for market-based mechanisms to lead the way.

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