In the US, climate change sees checks and balances

Electric ecotaxis run on coal fired battery power in Washington, and in politics checks and balances separate progress and stand offs in the climate debate. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations”, Barack Obama said in January during his inaugural speech, bringing this issue back at the forefront of American politics amid Republican opposition.

The US capitol is a city full of checks and balances; here power is omnipresent yet at the same time action is difficult to undertake. Democracy in America, with its separated powers between the president and two Houses of Congress provides plenty of possibilities for policy obstruction.

So might the US finally change on climate change? In spite of Obama’s speech only one thing is certain – climate change will change America.

In the State Department the line is clear: Obama’s overture on climate action is nothing new, rather, it is the expression of existing policies and engagement. Yet outside Washington, next to a firestowe
and a wall full of Irish 20th century poets – “I can resist anything except temptation” quoting Oscar Wilde – a young professor at George Mason University is tempted to see the president’s approach as new.

Politicians will not be able to resist change, he says, since yet-to-be published opinion surveys point to climate action as a means to cash in on independent voters in the 2014 mid-term elections.

Moreover, scientific progress might soon enable the downscaling of climatic megatrends to local forecasts for areas such Virginia and other US states under different temperature scenarios – such as 2, 3 or 4 degree temperature increases, thereby turning climate change into a local issue.

Yet such a change of policy is unlikely before the next mid-term elections, set for November 2014. In the Republican controlled House of Representatives, opposition to European style cap-and-trade climate
policy is unconditional, and in the Democratic controlled Senate the view prevails that the likelihood of a carbon tax in the current term is less than 20 % at best.

However, a number of democrats are optimistic that Obama might nevertheless try to propose a carbon tax as part of a grand bargain set to tackle the US’s deficit even before the mid-term elections – knowing that success is unlikely, but sharing the view that the struggle itself might be politically beneficial for the Democrats.

Hence a significant US policy shift presided by Obama seems dependent on the Democrats regaining control of the House of Representatives in 2014 – ahead of the 2015 deadline by which the world is to agree on a comprehensive climate deal beyond 2020.

It is a fine cut indeed.

Meanwhile, climate activists about Washington hope to make the most of the executive powers that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have to safeguard clean air legislation. Requirements for fuel quality
are being tightened, the US Department of Agriculture promotes both first and second generation biofuels, and from Montana to Colorado shale gas takes on coal in the energy mix.

From a European perspective, this bottom up approach to the climate challenge that focuses on politically feasible action in the short term rather than top-down CO2 reduction targets for the next decades inspires scepticism.

Will the US truly be part of a solution?

I am going about America to try to find out.