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Action on carbon is down the drain

United Kingdom
Financial Times
Clive Crook

The Democratic leadership in the US Senate has suspended efforts to pass a climate change bill. It abandoned not only its planned comprehensive cap-and-trade measure, similar to one already passed by the House of Representatives, but also a more modest bill aimed at electric utilities. The Senate will most likely pass an energy bill of some sort, but this will barely even pretend to make progress on curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

This surrender concludes a story that began with the Kyoto protocol in 1997 and reached its climax last December at the Copenhagen climate change conference. At that long-anticipated gathering, the world’s governments expected to replace the Kyoto system, which had made no perceptible dent in the problem, with a new and more effective regime. They left with nothing.

No matter, smiled Barack Obama and other leaders through clenched teeth: this would not stop the US and its partners moving forward with plans of their own. Oh, really? The whole enterprise, from top to bottom, has now collapsed. Some will celebrate – they think climate change was a scam to begin with – but that is a far bigger mistake. The cap-and-trade approach, especially as shaped by Congress, left a lot to be desired, but a strong scientific consensus points to the need for speedy action.

Governments have failed. It is important to understand why, and to see what needs to change. In the US, almost everybody is implicated. The Republican party is at fault for refusing to take climate change seriously and for brainlessly opposing tax increases – which meaningful climate change policies demand, one way or another. Under current rules, the Senate needs 60 votes to pass a law; there are 59 Democrats, so they cannot act alone.

The Democrats themselves are divided. They would struggle to muster a bare Senate majority for cap-and-trade. The party has also bungled the case for action. It pretended cap-and-trade could work without making energy dearer – it is not really a tax, they insist. Of course it is and voters can usually tell when they are being conned.

In an election year, with a depressed economy and sentiment turning against the Democrats, passing cap-and-trade was sure to be difficult. After healthcare reform, a fiscal stimulus of $800bn, the Troubled Asset Relief Program and a wholesale rearrangement of financial regulation, US voters have no appetite for another big initiative. This may be why Mr Obama invested so little in the issue. He let cap-and-trade die in Congress. He too is partly to blame.

In all these political calculations, one fact looms large: voters are worried about climate change, but not enough to demand, or perhaps even tolerate, meaningful action. This is why the politicians acted as they did. Stronger leadership would have helped, no doubt. Still, you have to wonder why public opinion is failing of its own accord to demand action. The answer is not, I think, that voters on the whole are stupid – something many politicians believe rather too openly. In part, it is that climate science has trashed its own credibility.

Leading scientists have worked as activists rather than scholars, on the principle that the public needs to be scared and must not be troubled with complications. Uncertainties are suppressed, disagreements kept quiet, inconvenient truths set aside. The science is settled: that is all the public can handle.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change institutionalised the idea and the Climategate e-mails opened a window on the process. What was supposed to be a disinterested clearing-house for science to guide policy became, in part, a taxpayer-funded lobbying shop – and a notably incompetent one. The science was fitted to the case for action rather than the other way round. The public does not trust scientist-activists, and is right not to.

Restoring confidence in climate science should be a priority – a task that the recent flurry of inquiries supposedly vindicating the Climategate e-mailers has set back. The IPCC needs new leadership, a fresh mandate and strong oversight. Governments should stop outsourcing their advocacy role to a supposedly non-political scientific body. Scientists demanding deference to their expertise are entitled to it only if they leave politics to the politicians. The case for action on greenhouse gases is strong, but not certain. Action ought to be taken despite the doubts. That is different from demanding action because there are no doubts. Trust the public with a less varnished view of the science and support for climate policy would strengthen. How else should governments move forward? A new and more flexible international framework will be needed – a subject for another time. Also indispensable, in the US at least, will be a more honest and intelligent discussion about taxation.

Republican intransigence and Democratic evasion on this subject are paralysing not just climate policy but action on the equally pressing issue of fiscal sustainability. Tim Geithner, Treasury secretary, has said the administration might propose comprehensive tax reform next year. Good idea. Let it include a carbon tax. Some of the proceeds could be spent on research into clean energy and some to cut other taxes.

Republicans, wake up: how you tax and how much you raise altogether are separate questions. While this subject cannot even be raised, the chances of getting energy policy right are nil.

El contenido de las noticias que se presentan en esta sección es responsabilidad directa de las agencias emisoras de noticias y no necesariamente reflejan la posición del Gobierno de México en este u otros temas relacionados.


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