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Should Obama push a climate bill in 2009 or 2010? Part I, Does a serious bill need action from China?

By Joe Romm

"Should Obama push a climate bill in 2009 or 2010? Part I, Does a serious bill need action from China?"


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I’m not asking whether we should pass a serious climate bill before China acts. The answer to that question is obviously yes, as I’ve written many times (see The “China Excuse” for inaction and The U.S.-China Suicide Pact on Climate).

But as I noted in my post on Stephen Chu’s confirmation hearing for energy secretary, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) made some worrisome remarks on the subject. Our very own David Lewis transcribed the exchange in the comments (here). I’m going to repost it below because Bayh is a thoughtful moderate who certainly understands the climate issue.

First, however, let me make a few comments. We have no chance to stabilize CO2 concentrations at 450 ppm (let alone 350), if China does not agree to cap its carbon emissions by 2020 (see “Must-read IEA report explains what must be done to avoid 6°C warming“). Right now, however, China seems to be willfully pursuing planetary self-destruction (see “China announces plan to single-handedly finish off the climate“).

The international negotiation process that led to the Kyoto Protocol and that is supposed to culminate in another deal in Copenhagen at the end of this year is for all intents and purposes in a deep coma, even if most of the participants don’t realize that (see “Obama can’t get a global climate treaty ratified, so what should he do instead? Part 1“). Indeed, the only thing that could possibly revive it is China agreeing to a cap by no later than 2020. That alone means Obama’s top international priority this year must not be Copenhagen, but rather China. Whether or not Obama needs some action by China to get a U.S. bill passed, his entire presidency and the fate of the planet rest on whether he can in fact get a China deal (see “What will make Obama a great president, Part 2: A climate deal with China“).

Let me go further here, based in part on Bayh’s remarks. I think it is rather obvious that if China simply refuses to agree to any strong emissions constraints sometime during Obama’s (hopefully) two terms in office, than even if we had passed a climate bill in this country, the political support for the kind of carbon dioxide prices needed to achieve meaningful reductions by 2020 would just fade away. Second, I think it is even more obvious that the climate bill we could pass in this country would be considerably stronger if we could in fact negotiate a strong, bilateral GHG agreement with China (or trilateral with China and the EU) — though presumably the Chinese side of things would be contingent on a U.S. bill passing.

I do not want to be misunderstood here: It is more than reasonable to argue, as I have repeatedly, that the US should try to pass a bill first — and such a bill may be the key to unlocking Chinese action. But Bayh’s comments in his exchange with Chu suggest that may not work politically:

Senator Bayh: I’d like to follow up on the last question that Senator Wyden asked you, about China and you know the importance and your stated belief that it’s important, indeed essential, to include developing nations, particularly China and India in any regime of CO2 reduction. And I think you said that the US will take the first step. And hopefully China will follow. You know, we’ll have to relook at it if they don’t. It’s my honest conviction that that approach will not be enacted by the US Congress. Simply trusting China to – you know, they have their own internal needs to have high rates of growth. They’ve been proven to be willing to sacrifice just about any other concern to maintain that high rate of growth, to maintain domestic political stability. And they don’t have a great track record frankly in abiding by some of the other agreements, particularly honoring intellectual property rights, other things. And so a skeptic might say, we’re going to be going through dislocations here that will affect our economy, consumers, other things. The American people would make great sacrifices. You’d have to really wonder about whether China would go along. And you know, people have to cast votes on these things. and that probably won’t be good enough to get the job done. So I would really and I’ve raised this with hopefully the secretary to be currently Senator Clinton, hopefully Secretary of State Clinton, about the need to engage in robust diplomacy, before we come to Congress with a global warming initiative, because it’s really going to – we’re going to need to buy in in the front if this thing is going to work

Dr. Chu: Actually I agree with that completely. Just so you know, perhaps this would put you more at ease with what I said. As you know I was co-chair of this report sponsored by the InterAcademy Council. That’s a council that represents over a hundred academies of science around the world. It’s a report called “Lighting the Way” and how one transitions to a sustainable energy. And in that report, we said quite clearly that all the countries, developed and developing countries, have to be part of the solution. Now, and I agree that this is a touchy diplomatic, economic, multidimensional problem. And….

Sen. Bayh: Dr. to put you — I was not ill at ease with what you said. I simply — this is an important issue. We both believe that. So because it’s an important issue, we have to make sure it’s going to work. And without China participating, it’s not going to work, and I don’t think it will get enacted. And a skeptic viewing their past behavior would have to say that’s going to be a heavy lift. So, in a way that is, you know, verifiable and transparent. It’s just going to be very hard to get them there. And so I think we’re going to have to focus on that component early on in this process. And that’s beyond your bailiwick, but since you were asked about it and responded. I was not — I just want to emphasize that point: if we’re going to get this job done, we got to focus on that. And in my estimation, it’s going to be difficult, and frankly, I’m a little skeptical about whether they’ll ever get there in a way that is, you know, because of the political dynamic within their own country. But let’s give it a shot. Let’s see. Let’s do our best. Perhaps we can. I think its well worth the effort.”

Read it more than once. It’s a tad confusing, but, in the end, sobering stuff.

I believe the Obama administration, led by Clinton and Chinese-American Chu (and possibly a specially designated high-level envoy), should pursue a very aggressive dual track of negotiations with China and negotiations with Congress. Then they are going to have to make a very tough call some time later this year or early next year. I believe they must pass a U.S. climate bill by mid-2010 — global warming is simply too important an issue to defer beyond that. If they have failed to move the Chinese — or if the Chinese refuse to make any commitments until they see US action — then they have to move forward with the best bill they can pass alone.

But if the Chinese are prepared to make a serious commitment — and no doubt it would take many months of negotiations to find out how serious and then to develop a deal — then that could be crucial to getting a truly serious climate bill passed. Progressives certainly don’t want Obama to burn through all of the domestic political capital needed to achieve climate legislation merely to end up with an unserious bill like the one the now- irrelevant US climate action partnership just proposed (see “NRDC and EDF endorse the weak, coal-friendly, rip-offset-heavy USCAP climate plan“).

Based on my conversations with Hill staffers and others — and the not-so-subtle tea leaves being published in the media — I doubt there will be a US climate bill passed in 2009. Personally, I now think 2010 may be a better idea anyway, but only if the Obama administration takes a variety of specific actions in 2009. What those actions are will be the subject of Part Two.

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13 Responses to Should Obama push a climate bill in 2009 or 2010? Part I, Does a serious bill need action from China?

  1. John McCormick says:

    Joe, this post might become the most important in your blog’s history.

    The U.S. cannot – and the Congress will not approve — approach America’s commitment to climate change mititagtion on a unilateral basis.

    Senator Bayh affirmed that point blank when he said to Dr. Chu,

    [And, I think you said tht the US will take the first step. And, hopefully China will follow. You know, we'll have to relook at it if they don't.]

    America’s relationship with China is that of a customer and borrower; both facets make America less a manipulator and more a compliant partner (low cost products and deficit underwriting).

    The fact the US committed its support to Taiwan in the distant past and now appears to have other considerations with regard to that commitment is a case in point.

    China is actively pursuing its own economic stimulus program and that effort is focused entirely upon maintaining domestic stability and assuring its population the central government will look out for their welfare in these difficult economic times. The Congress has to weigh China’s investment in domestic needs with U.S. deficits and that means keeping the foreign capital flowing into our Treasury — at least until we get back on our feet. Failing to achieve that will bring our economy to its knees.

    How can the US Congress commit our economy to a unilateral climate control law without first having engaged China and India in a joint pact to draw up mutual cooperative efforts that benefit each party while satisfying mutual interests? Technology transfer of any and all means to provide the means to service their national energy needs while reducing emissions of climate-forcing gases is the ace card we hold. And, the trasnfer can go both ways: I include China’s research of the pebble-bed modular reactor in this mix.

    For all of its failings, the Bush Administration did accomplish one important contribution to U.S., China, India, Japan, South Korea and Australia progress on reducing climate-forcing emissions while improving efficiency of fossil fuel consumption —- it is the Asia Pacific Partnership; an ongoing program Climate Progress should review and discuss.

    If I had a moment with the Obama Administration, I would urge a three-party negotiation between the U.S., China and India to reach an agreement that each of our nations will suffer serious and cataclysmic impacts of unabated temperature increases. Then, in the name of international harmony, agree to mutually attack the most dangerous impacts by planning and executing a collective effort to diminish those risks while shoring up defenses against the most compelling impacts. I can imaging US, China and India collaborating on how to avert massive unrest as the Himalayan glaciers cease to provide the vital melt water runoff those nations depend upon in the dry seasons, Any serious student of climate change can add numerous similar collaborations we three nations can undertake.

    Cooperation. Cooperation. Cooperation….three essential ingredients the U.S. China and India MUST embrace before the world’s climate experts and mitigation advocated descend upon Copenhagen.

    Without reaching some accord among our three nations, Copenhagen and Congressional action on climate change control will be fruitless and destructive for U.S. interests (in terms of painful delay).

    It is time for the U.S. environmental community to put aside its righteous (and justified) demands and look at the serious international lay of the land.

    John McCormick

  2. Greg Robie says:

    The US passed a very strong climate bill last year. It was called TARP. Prior to that the Fed and the Treasury acted strongly to implement climate impacting decisions. The President-elect’s proposed “stimulus” package is a strong climate bill. It is poised to be fast tracked into law this year. The question that is raised and framed in this post is, at best (and systemically), a distraction; a slight of hand.
    Efforts to avoid the consequences (economic collapse) of chasing prosperity through a debt-based, OPEC oil sales shored up US dollar-based global economy is–denial and/or ignorance withstanding–strong actions to not pay the price needed to tip the plant back out of our tipping it into klimakatastrophe in our pursuit of such “wealth.”
    China’s impugned “irresponsibility” is, systemically, little more than a pragmatic response to our irresponsibility. Consider. for China to buy OPEC oil it needs, as has the entire world since 1973, US dollars. To gain these dollars it needed to acquire them. It has. Doesn’t critiquing China for being environmentally irresponsible says more about the teacher than the student?
    In any event, lets look at the climate legislation we have enacted/ are enacting through the concerted economic recovery efforts. Isn’t this economy we are trying to save what has led to global-wide behaviors, policies and laws that have tipped earth into kilmakatastrophe? Isn’t the economic recovery effort, therefore, in practice (and therefore, in fact) climate legislation?
    I know a countering argument is that global capitalism can be greened. However, doesn’t a lot of denial need to be accessed (via a motivated reasoning dynamic) for that position to be experienced as logically defensible? The iteration of global capitalism that is collapsing is debt-based, extractive, exploitative, and externalizing of responsibility for justice in matters of the environment, society, and the economy (a false hope in socially responsible investing, withstanding). As an embodiment of the ultimate oxymoron, global capitalism, markets itself on through false premise that personal wealth is possible through an irresponsible and unjust planet-wide interdependent networking of everyone and everything.
    In a, literally, mindless response, governments are rushing to absorb costs of the externalizing of the economic injustices of this economic genre. What is it in such a dynamic that is an argument that, in the matters of rectifying environmental injustice/irresponsibility, the dynamics of a “greened” capitalism born of this very un-green one–will be different? To make this question even more profound, the imploding derivatives markets is composed of pairs of balanced countering bets. If it is true that this market is in the neighborhood of $600 trillion dollars, and, simplistically, there are holders of $300 trillion in bets that the system will fail., as illogical as such bets are, what is ~$2 trillion (so far) of “liquidity” against such “legal” bets? When one factors in that the entity trying to counter these bets has a $3.107 trillion annual budget (about an 1/8th of that borrowed) and an outstanding deficit on its balance sheets of debt and unfunded obligations of $52.7 trillion (at the close of books in 2007–a 158% increase for this decade), this is a valiant if ineffectual amount of liquid in the face of the size–and dryness–of the sponge against the liquidity that is being dribbled onto it. Does this sponge need to be soaked before the economy it represents can yield juice for a green capitalistic economy that, in turn yields sustainable environmental justice? If so, the environment (and justice) aren’t waiting. Ours is simply a choice of catch up or becoming catsup.

  3. hapa says:

    it would sure help if official american policy was something besides “kneecap any pretenders to our throne.”

  4. John McCormick says:

    Greg, read Joe’s post and direct your comments to Senator Bayh’s opinion and how President Obama and the Congress should proceed with a climate change bill vis a vis China.

    John McCormick

  5. Steve says:

    The EU has talked about controlling leakage with a carbon tariff. This could also be effective in getting developing nations to do something about GHG emissions. Simply set the tariff at the worst-case scenario emissions for a given product (based on its component parts) and let a manufacturer rebut the worst-case tariff by proving up lower emissions. This should not run afoul of GATT since it just levels the playing field. It’s not exactly a silver bullet, but at least carbon emissions would be priced into the product when we purchased it here. It would also give the US a nice revenue stream that could be rebated to consumers, used on carbon-reducing R&D, etc. Fold this into any carbon reduction bill in the US and see what happens.

  6. Dean says:

    The key is China’s transition from the “how much” focus to the “how” focus. Quantity only to quality. The collapse of thousands of cheaply-built schools in the earthquake last year as well as the milk pollution scandal are a step in that direction. Chinese are starting to learn that “how” is as important as “how much.”

    If the US can take the first step, maybe (if necessary) with a sunset review based on China’s response, then we can only hope that the response will be there. And let’s not forget to include India in this process as well. They aren’t that many steps behind China.

  7. Jeff R. says:

    This CFR report (http://www.cfr.org/publication/16362/confronting_climate_change.html?breadcrumb=%2Fpublication%2Fby_type%2Ftask_force_report) (See e.g. section “A UN Deal” p.67 et seq.) summarizes what has recently become conventional wisdom among climate change political scholars: the US will never be able to persuade China and India to make binding commitments before without first making credible commitments of its own. Any other course of action is certain to result in deadlock.

    One way to circumvent predictable congressional numbness to this reality is to do what California did – legislate a very general bill that sets goals but instructs the executive branch (through an existing or new agency) to determine the rules that will get us there. California’s economy-wide GHG limitation was legislated through very short (13 pages) legislation. Compare that to the 450 page plus Lieberman-Warner.

    Such a path will allow for the support of certain congresspersons who understand the need for aggressive action but who are unwilling to be on the record as compromising coal or industrial interests. I tend to think this is the best approach for action in the next two to three years. On the other hand, there is so much at stake with this legislation that delegation of this sort might undermine the law’s legitimacy (…do we care?). The question is how to strike the right balance in light of the impending danger. Ironically, the current administration’s overreach of executive authority may have weakened the institutional appetite of Congress to give this one to the Obama team.

  8. Mark says:

    The “we shouldn’t act if they don’t act” mentality doesn’t make much sense to me. Sure – if emissions from developing countries continue to climb unabated, our actions on the surface won’t make a great difference with global warming. But here’s the deal: let’s say we start cutting emissions and China makes no commitments. Over the next 10-20 years, the effects will be:

    - We substantially clean up our environment.

    - We become much far less dependent on fossil fuels, which has a variety of benefits including national security.

    - Most studies show only a small net economic cost regarding mitigation efforts.

    - Low carbon technologies gain a competitive edge. With massive private industry resources shifted towards the development of these technologies (wind, solar, geothermal, wave, nuclear, smart grid) beyond government labs, they will likely advance more rapidly (history has shown this with regards to government initiatives), thus being more quickly adopted by developing nations.

    We lead and others will eventually follow. This isn’t based merely on faith or hope as Bayh seems to imply. It’s based on history. When the government creates mandates, technology progresses, and that technology is adopted globally. Denmark didn’t become a global leader in wind technology production by sitting on their hands. Now I understand that this discussion is in regards to what is politically possible, but politics are often based on false notions. Our politicians roundly need to understand that it’s in our best interest to lead, even if others don’t immediately follow.

  9. John McCormick says:


    We are discussing a time-related problem of super-human dimensions.

    You said:

    [Our politicians roundly need to understand that it’s in our best interest to lead, even if others don’t immediately follow.]

    What do you mean by “immediately follow”.

    Timing is the sum and substance of this blog. Why would Obama and the Congress go through a ‘battle at Dunkirk’ to achieve a piece of paper and a mandate to reduce global-warming emissions if our achievement is wiped out by continued Indian and Chinese refusal to join? What leverage would America have then?

    We don’t have the time to go it alone. End of story.

    John McCormick

  10. Greg Robie says:

    Greg, read Joe’s post and direct your comments to Senator Bayh’s opinion and how President Obama and the Congress should proceed with a climate change bill vis a vis China.

    John McCormick

    Hi John,

    Thanks for reading through my poorly formated post. I am learning what _not_ to do as I make my initial posts at this blog. It is always fun to make a fool of oneself. It helps nurture humility–and this is a good thing.

    In any event, if I understand your request correctly, you do not buy the argument that the economic “recovery” efforts are the substantive climate actions that the President and Congress are in the midst of; that as long as there is hope in saving global capitalism there is no hope relative to tipping back out of the tip into klimakatastrophe. If so, I would you guess that you may yet be holding on to the hope that we have not quite tipped into this condition. Is this correct?

    Going with that as an assumption, and a premise, the first thing I feel needs to be established is the role cultural differences play in defining what are solutions. The “we will do such and such” if you “do such and such” is very Western; very low-context. It does not translate well when experienced in the “high context” cultures of the Far East. While it would be a miracle if we have not lost the status we had as an “elder” among the world’s nations, in a high context culture, as an elder, it is incumbent on us to act. If what is going on is wrong and should not be done, stop doing it . . . otherwise you have no honor.

    Such “leadership” is both stupid and exploitable fom the perspective of our low culture context. If we have been successful in turning China’s leadership in to good western low context negotiators, we all get to become catsup under our “leadership.” We will never trust them, and they have learned to emulate us. To the degree this is the dynamics of the situation, leadership requires that such be named, humility embraced, apologies offered, and the right thing done. That is how, in a high context culture dishonor is redressed, cost and consequences be damned.

    Second, like what was learned during prohibition, good behavior cannot be legislated, it must be chosen. A friend from my town was in Rio in 1992. What he reported back from his experiences that made the strongest impression on me is that the third world participants, may of them elders, had concluded that for there to be a prayer of a chance for the planet to be saved, there needed to be a religious revival in the first world. In their experience, the kind of lifestyle changes that saving the planet required were, in their context, religious in nature . . . and they were praying for us.

    Well the West, even then, was in the midst of a religious revival, so the one they were praying for was emotionally inaccessible to us. This revival’s religion, global capitalism, captured our souls. I think it can be helpfully observed that scientifically it can be defined that what is religious is that which effects motivated reasoning in its practitioner. Motivated reasoning is that psychoneuroimmunoendocrinological process by which contradictions are thought to be resolved, but only the emotional areas of the brain are active in that resolution. With the contradiction “resolved” the part of the brain that gives us dopamine for getting the right answer, rewards us for thinking this emotional resolution is critical thinking (the frontal lobes, where critical thought occurs, do not fire during this process). With such a definition, the US has violated the separation clause and established global capitalism as a state religion. In this context the government’s effort to bail out the nation’s religion makes perfect sense–except, of course, that the resulting action and its logic are non-rational. As true believers, however, we will die (OK, kill others–even the planet) before we doubt.

    In this context I find it more instructive to analyze what we are doing before considering what we should do. How can one be sure one knows what one should do if one does not understand why one is doing what one is doing–which in our case is likely mostly talk/typing. How I live adds up to a footprint that needs three to four earths for all to live like I do. While I can blame the contradictions between what I know and what I do on the behavior of the deniers, at least the deniers are consistent in how they are living relative to what they know. Could it be that the example I am setting, of living a contradiction, is speaking louder than my typing? Could what pisses me off about them is what I need to change about myself? Returning to what I feel is a good thing referenced at the start of this post, and to paraphrase Walt Smith AKA Pogo, I have met the enemy and he is me.

    This dashing of hope aside–and I would welcome learning I am wrong and learn of climate modeling that can account for the “early” arrivals of what “should,” as positive feedbacks, be future consequences of klimakatastrophe that are being observed now, while still showing there is time for these feed backs to be reveresed–I do have one option that I have imagined for which the hope that we have not irrevocably tipped into klimakatastrophe yet applies. I have included at my OpenTo.info website. It seems to be that there are four constitutional crisis that require immediately redressing for there to be any hope that we can be tipped back out of our chosen death spiral. They are outlined at this URL (http://home.roadrunner.com/~robie/opento/klimakatastrophe/DiscoveringMetanoia.html#ConstitutionCrises).

    I am initially impressed by what I have discovered at this blog. I provide this link with a humble request for critical feedback. Even so, my experience tells me that the task before me is to work to help my society embrace, non-violently, the death of god experience we have entered. In another thread at this blog a question was raised about people who have gone negative. Another, wisely, in my experience, referenced the stages of grief as a response and stated people who have gone negative will come back. Using that as a model, I am learning to function–and it ant easy–from that 6th stage. A great deal of suffering lies in the future we are choosing and/or are accepting, but are living into. By mentoring humility and taking responsibility, as best I can, I am doing what I can to welcome the arrival of environmental, social, and economic justice. The arch of the universe is long . It does bend toward justice. Referencing (and disagreeing with) President-elect Obama’s paraphrasing of this insight in his acceptance speech, it does not bend toward hope. It has been our hand that has been heavy upon it and bending it away from justice. In this context, what a privilege it is to learn–even at the cost of mine and my posterity’s lives, this truth of nature of the arch of the universe and what it instructs to be justice and love.

  11. Go it alone WHILE urging China on. Let’s get the first-mover advantage. China will eventually be compelled by GHG consequences to buy America’s low-carbon technologies, methodologies, marketplaces.

  12. Greg says:

    What are all these “go it alone” comments? Go it alone? Europe and Japan are well ahead of the US (in per capita emissions) and will gladly join a “coalition of the willing” (if that phrase is not hopelessly discredited).

    China (and maybe India) may ignore the US, but they’re not going to ignore a coalition that includes NAFTA, Europe, South America, Japan and Korea.

    The US can easily lead the world to a better path, if it doesn’t try to do it in the most difficult, confrontational way.

    My advice: ignore China for the time being. Help your neighbours and your friends. Build global opinion up to the point where the momentum of change is unstoppable. China will soon be knocking on the door.

  13. David B. Benson says:

    Greg has it about right. In fact, China is attempting to move towards a low fossil carbon economy, despite some appearances to the contrary.