Edge of Climate Change
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|Marianne Lavelle||November 9th 2009|
Center for Public Integrity
In the poor, but mineral-rich mountains of the eastern United States known as Appalachia, coal millionaire Don Blankenship hosts a rally for “Friends of America” to hear country music and “learn how environmental extremists and corporate America are both trying to destroy your jobs.”
On the other side of the globe, with an eye on his venture in an Australian port town known both as a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and a smokestack industry haven, aluminum billionaire Oleg Deripaska battles that nation’s program to address climate change as “destructive for jobs, destructive for new and existing investment.”
And in China, ambitious renewable electricity plans look like an important step toward tackling global warming, but progress lags due to built-in and deeply entrenched favoritism for cheaper fossil fuel. “There’s no need for anyone to get over-excited,” says Lu Qizhou, the government appointee who heads China’s big power industry group. Change from the coal-fired energy system will be slow and won’t outpace “the market’s ability to cope.”
Around the world the story is the much same. Wherever nations have taken the first modest steps to stave off a looming environmental calamity for future generations, they’ve triggered a backlash from powers rooted in the economy of the past. Opponents of climate action may have different methods as they pressure different capitals, but the message is consistent: Be afraid that a cherished way of life may be lost. Be afraid that a better standard of living will never be had.
From Kyoto to Copenhagen
Those fears will be center stage as negotiators from 192 nations gather in Copenhagen this December to forge one of the most challenging multi-national agreements ever. The daunting task: to reduce the pollution that the scientific consensus says has imperiled the planet — emissions from the burning of oil, coal, and gas that have fueled all economic development since the Industrial Revolution.
The world, of course, already has a plan in place to cut carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — an agreement reached at Kyoto, Japan in 1997. But that deal was marked by the decision made early on that developing countries, like China and India, where millions of people still lived without electricity, would not have binding obligations to reduce emissions. That accommodation was made in recognition of the need to eradicate poverty in countries where per capita emissions remain low, and that the bulk of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere came from countries that grew wealthy in fossil-fueled economies. But as a result, Kyoto simply exempted the largest future source of the problem; the International Energy Agency projects that 97 percent of the increase in global emissions between now and 2030 will come from developing countries. And Kyoto’s rich-poor nation divide on obligations made it politically impossible to get the United States — the largest historic source of greenhouse gas emissions — to agree to participate.
Kyoto always was seen as just a first step, with new negotiations needed on a second phase of commitments to begin in 2012.
But those talks for a new global warming agreement at Copenhagen have become freighted with significance, due to hope for both new leadership from the United States and for better ideas on how to bridge the gap between the world’s haves and have-nots. “Copenhagen is not just about negotiations, it’s a political policy event that will have a big impact on global consciousness on the state of climate change,” says Rafe Pomerance, president of the U.S. non-profit Clean Air-Cool Planet and a former climate negotiator as deputy assistant secretary of state during the Clinton Administration. “It’s so big that it’s driving activity all over the world. And the process itself is almost as important as the outcome.”
It was in anticipation of Copenhagen that the leaders of the developed countries known as the Group of Eight (or G8) pledged at their July meeting in Italy to work to keep temperatures from rising more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) over pre-industrial levels. Beyond that threshold lie grave dangers for civilization, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations network of more than 2,000 scientists that reports the consensus view of peer-reviewed science. Risks include global sea-level rise, drought that reduces world food supply, loss of fresh water, and increased wildfire, insects, and disease.
The Global Lobby: Vested Interests
The G8 agreed that emissions should be cut 80 percent or more below 1990 levels by 2050, in line with IPCC targets, but the world leaders declined to name any short-term goals. And the IPCC views near-term action as crucial. In fact, it specifies that global emissions — which have been inexorably rising — should begin to fall by 2015 if the world hopes to stabilize the atmosphere. (Even that stabilizing point — at 450 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide — is well below the more aggressive target of 350 ppm that NASA scientist James Hansen and demonstrators around the world have called for.)
In fact, none of the emissions reduction targets for Copenhagen announced so far by wealthy countries meets the 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 that the IPCC said would be necessary to achieve stabilization. (See “Climate Goals Fall Short” to the right.) The cuts being eyed in the United States and Canada, for example, are just a few points less than a bare return to 1990 levels. Australia, Japan, and the European Union have voiced a willingness to do more, but contingent on action from other nations. Japan, especially, has an eye on the developing world. And that’s the crux of the stalemate, because China, India, and the other developing nations refuse binding emissions reductions.
This climate deadlock is nearly always framed as the clash between the national interests of wealthy countries that want to maintain their standard of living and the national interests of developing countries that need to lift millions out of poverty. But the arguments of the rich and poor nations actually have the same underpinning — that cheap fossil-fueled energy and other carbon-intensive activities like deforestation are keys to economic success. And all of those governments — no matter how far north or south — are feeling the pressure of the interests that have mobilized to keep this conviction alive.
In China, for instance, wind turbines rising against the Xinjian Province mountains have become an iconic image of that country’s growing commitment to cleaner energy. Severe crippling ice storms that marred Chinese New Year in early 2008 touched off a national dialogue on climate change. The government’s goal is to achieve 20 percent renewable power by 2020, on the road to which it has doubled its installed wind power in each of the past four years. But China is also building coal plants so fast that it still gets just one percent of electricity from wind. The reality is that only one of the top 10 power companies — all of them state-owned enterprises — will meet the government’s interim goal of three percent renewables by 2010. The power company executives, all quasi-governmental officials, have resisted proposals to help renewables by raising the price of coal. “There don’t need to be ‘lobbyists’ when discussions can happen directly through the Party,” says Beijing-based political commentator Zhao Jing.
The pressure is less subtle in democratic developing countries. For example, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva recently said he will go to Copenhagen with an offer to reduce the pace of deforestation in the Amazon rain forest — one of the world’s most important natural absorbers of carbon dioxide — by 80 percent by 2020. But Carlos Minc, Lula’s environment minister, who has hands-on responsibility for the policy, has faced an onslaught from the powerful agriculture industry and its allies in elected office who want to maintain free rein on land use. One governor even threatened him with rape. “Many of those industries talk about zero deforestation, but when we press them they want to kill us, or make speeches declaring me persona non grata,” he says. “They call me to speak in the Senate or the House and I stay for five hours under a massacre. They’re favorable to zero deforestation, provided it doesn’t affect …their own land.”
The principle that developing countries shouldn’t have binding treaty obligations is dearly held by businesses that have the ear of government in those nations. In Delhi, India, Bharat Wakhlu, resident director of the powerful Tata Group — that nation’s largest business conglomerate with nearly 100 companies from power generation to autos — says the company recognizes it has a role in addressing global warming. But, he added, “We believe in a ‘common but differentiated’ approach, as we have to retain our competitiveness as well as ensure the planet is safe.” United Nations climate change convention documents dating back as far as 1992 use the phrase “common but differentiated” to describe the responsibilities of rich and poor nations; the key differentiation has been that only wealthy nations need to cut emissions.
Juan C. Mata Sandoval, Mexico’s top climate official and a negotiator for Copenhagen, is frank that one of the business lobby’s chief concerns has been that his nation remain a “non-Annex 1” country — one without required emissions cuts. “We need to communicate with them constantly to explain how the negotiations are going,” he said. “The private sector also wants a voice and an opinion on how much is Mexico going to put on the table.”
But in its own way, Mexico — like China, India, and Brazil — is addressing climate change. Mexico has a national climate change plan with 86 specific goals it says will slow the growth of its carbon emissions, now at about 700 megatons a year, by about 50 megatons by 2012. In absolute terms, Mexico’s carbon output would still rise in the short term, but the country also has mapped out a long-term pathway to reduce its emissions — if it receives technical and financial support from developed countries. Mexico has proposed a global Green Fund to which all nations would contribute based on a formula that takes into account all the factors that have divided rich and poor nations — both historical and current emissions, both gross domestic product and population.
It’s just one of the ideas that have been floated for breaking the climate stalemate. The idea of “nationally appropriate mitigations actions” — cuts that make sense given a country’s state of development — was actually included in the roadmap for the Copenhagen talks that was adopted in Bali in 2007. Experts credit the Center for Clean Air Policy (CCAP), a Washington non-profit that has been working to bridge the rich-poor nation climate divide, for promoting the concept. In dialogues with 30 developing countries, CCAP found that many were taking steps to reduce electricity use and increase renewable power. “They had all these things they were doing on their own — not for money from [developed countries] but for good reasons in their own countries,” says CCAP President Ned Helme. “We were trying to figure out a way to build on that momentum.”
South Korea and South Africa have proposed a system for harnessing that progress by tracking the actions by developing countries. Numerous world leaders have been working on ways that moves by the developing world could be made measurable, reportable, and verifiable so they can be built into an international agreement. U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern sees these developments as cause for optimism, even while many view the Copenhagen talks as on a path toward stalemate. “All the major economies are prepared to lay down significant low-carbon development plans,” he said at a recent U.S.-India energy forum in Washington. “This is big news. It’s never happened before. It’s important stuff.”
But it’s a headline that hasn’t registered in the climate politics of the United States or other developed nations. Europe has a history of green party political power not found across the Atlantic, and on paper it has ambitious climate goals for 2020. But the actual emissions cuts contemplated within the E.U.’s borders were significantly reduced due to lobbying by heavy industries that protested they would face unfair competition from the developing world, especially amid the economic downturn.
Those themes are echoed by representatives of the so-called BINGOs, the Business and Industry Non-Governmental Organizations, that attend the negotiating sessions all over the world and have been a permanent presence in the United Nations’ efforts on climate change for more than 20 years. These climate uber-lobbyists aren’t there to make a hard-sell pitch, but to get to know the key players who congregate around the treaty talks, to ease their way into more specific policy discussions back home, where the real decisions are made. “We loiter,” John Scowcroft of the European Union of the Electricity Industry remarked at the recent talks in Bangkok. “It’s loitering with intent.”
Back home, manufacturing powerhouses like the aluminum industry of Australia argue they will lose jobs if developing country competitors like China don’t face the same regime of emissions cuts. Such business opposition helped defeat climate legislation in the Australian Senate in August, even though polling showed a majority of citizens favored it.
“An Epic Struggle”
Climate change is blamed for extreme weather plaguing Australia this year, including deadly wildfires, epic drought, and dust storms that turned the sky into a red glow. Credit: Sydney Morning Herald.
The business lobby has not been shy about pressing its views in Australia. The top 20 companies that are expected to receive assistance from the Australian government to reduce emissions employ 28 lobbying firms. More than half the lobbyists are former politicians, senior government bureaucrats, or political advisors. The business lobby has to be strong indeed to slow climate progress in Australia, the hottest and driest continent on earth, which is amid a years-long drought that contributed to deadly wildfires and is watching its climate-stressed tourism jewel, the Great Barrier Reef, on course to be “functionally extinct” by 2050. The administration of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose first official act in office in 2007 was to ratify Kyoto, is working with opponents on business-friendly amendments aiming to build support for a new vote on the legislation before Copenhagen.
In the United States, the Senate also is advancing its climate legislation in the Copenhagen run-up, but popular support for the measure is easily shaken. Although a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that three quarters of the Americans think the federal government should regulate greenhouse gases, only 52 percent supported the cap-and-trade program policymakers have chosen to address the problem. Only 44 percent said they would back a cap-and-trade system if it boosted monthly electricity bills by $25. Forty-four percent of Americans rated global warming as a “very serious” problem in the Pew Global Attitudes Project poll, putting the United States near the bottom of 25 nations surveyed, along with fellow major polluter China, at 30 percent. Some 90 percent of Brazilians, 68 percent of the French population, 67 percent of people in India, and 65 percent of Japanese viewed the issue as “very serious” in the international survey. A poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found roughly half of Americans favor setting limits on carbon emissions and making companies pay for their emissions, even if this may lead to higher energy prices. But the poll’s strongest finding was that the issue had not even registered with the public, with 55 percent said they had heard nothing at all of Congress’s efforts to address the problem.
If the public is unaware, more than 1,150 companies and advocacy groups are very tuned in, and they have deployed about 2,810 climate lobbyists to Capitol Hill, an increase of more than 400 percent from six years earlier, according to an analysis of disclosures filed with the Senate Office of Public Records. Spending on the lobbying this year so far in the United States is at least $47 million. Senate advocates aim to build support much as it was achieved in the legislation that narrowly passed the House this summer — by giving a boost to businesses that fear they’ll be hurt by measures raising the cost of the coal that supplies half the nation’s electricity. But the concessions have not won over opponents like Don Blankenship, chief executive of Massey Energy, the largest coal producer in central Appalachia, who forcefully disputes the science of global warming. Although that makes him an outlier in the public debate, his argument that the bill will cost jobs at the same time “it will increase global pollution by moving production to unregulated countries like China” causes worry on Capitol Hill.
Blankenship is just one of the business opponents who have worked to rally citizen ire — a campaign that has resulted in hundreds of alarmed phone calls to Senate offices. Given the power of industry lobbying in Washington, advocates see the best hope for the legislation’s passage as the competing U.S. businesses that support action, ranging from power companies that want predictable energy policy to high-tech firms that aim to market climate solutions.
Dan Reicher, director of climate change and energy initiatives at Google, who also was a member of President Barack Obama’s transition team, is confident climate action can gain support in the U.S. Congress, if it has plenty of flexibility and opportunity for businesses. But he is under no illusions it will be easy. “It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that there’s a major proportion of our economy that’s built around traditional energy supplies, and would indeed feel some impact from controlling carbon emissions,” he says. “So that’s what has to be sorted out politically.” At a recent conference in Washington on energy efficiency — a pursuit Google aims to advance by providing people real-time home electricity information — Reicher summed up the climate change politics succinctly: “This is going to be an epic, epic struggle.”
Marianne Lavelle writes for the Center for Public Integrity, from where this piece is adapted.