Rohrbacher suggests trees cause global warming

With politics at play, will the U.S. commit to a climate fund?

Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) was “one of President Reagan’s senior speech writers” from 1981 to 1988.  Reagan, of course, famously said “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.”

So it is perhaps not a complete surprise that at a House hearing on UN climate talks chaired by Rohrbacher, he actually asked:

Is there some thought being given to subsidizing the clearing of rainforests in order for some countries to eliminate that production of greenhouse gases?” the California Republican asked Todd Stern, the top U.S. climate diplomat and lead witness at the hearing. “Or would people be supportive of cutting down older trees in order to plant younger trees as a means to prevent this disaster from happening?”

Seriously.   Even the centrist mavens at Politico were taken aback, titling their story, “Do trees cause global warming?”

But they should remember that this is a guy who, in a 2007 hearing, said of previous warm periods in the paleo-record, “We don’t know what those other cycles were caused by in the past. Could be dinosaur flatulence, you know, or who knows?”

Jay Gulledge, a senior scientist at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, dismissed Rohrbacher’s anti-scientific comment in an email to me:

Clearing of tropical rainforests is the second-largest source of human-produced CO2, behind fossil fuel burning. When forests are cleared, not only do the trees no longer remove CO2 from the atmosphere, but the soils emit large amounts of CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide, further accelerating global warming. Moreover, clearing rainforest disrupts large-scale rainfall patterns, accelerates species extinction, and deprives society of natural products that are useful as food and medicine.

Of course, the title of yesterday’s House Committee of Foreign Affairs hearing on climate negotiations said it all: “UN Climate Talks and Power Politics – It’s Not About the Temperature.”  Rohrabacher used the hearing to ramble on about the “supposed science of climate change.

Aside from the political grandstanding, though, some very important issues were at stake: Namely, how much money will the U.S. commit to a $30 billion international fund to help developing countries lower emissions and adapt to a changing climate through 2012. After that, the more crucial question is where the money for America’s share of a $100 billion fund will come from.

If it were up to Rohrabacher, we wouldn’t commit a single dollar. At yesterday’s hearing he called such a fund a way “to penalize modernization and success,” also saying that any major contributions are a “fantasy.”

Earlier this week, the World Resources Institute issued an updated survey of the range of international commitments to the $30 billion “Fast Start” fund created as part of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord. With $28 billion pledged to date, the big uncertainty is where the U.S. stands:

The United States, in particular, has never made specific numerical commitments as part of their overall fast start pledge for the period 2010-12, always maintaining that it will contribute its “fair share.” The ambiguity in the overall pledge makes it hard to assess changes resulting from the budget cuts. Moreover, the budget documents do not allow us to accurately estimate the total fast start finance available for 2011. However, it is quite likely to be lower than the $1.9 billion that the administration had requested for FY2011 in early 2010 from the previous Congress, and some unofficial estimates indicate that it will be under $1 billion.

Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress focused on international climate policy, tells Climate Progress that while the U.S. commitment is uncertain, those figures actually tell a somewhat positive story about the fund:

What is impressive is that without any level of international coordination on this funding we are actually so close now in terms of accumulated pledges to date ($28 billion) to the overall target.

While America’s pledge to that fund is ambiguous, the estimates range from between $1 billion and $1.9 billion. In yesterday’s House hearing, Rohrabacher pushed Stearn on how much the U.S. would need to contribute each year to the upcoming $100 billion fund – but Stearn declined to comment on any specific figures, simply saying that a large portion of those funds would come from the private sector.

CAP’s Andrew Light says that the uncertainty around the long-term fund is far more worrisome than the upcoming deadline for the Fast Start fund:

What I’m really worried about is rather than hemming and hawing around the margins here is that we should focus on the biggest elephant in the room:  what do we do once the fast start period ends in 2012? There is a huge gap now between existing financial pledges.  Fast start ends in 2012 and then the next target for delivery of funds is 2020 when the $100 billion annual fund is supposed to start.

America’s role in upcoming negotiations may be at risk. A Politico story on the House climate hearings yesterday summed up the implications of the U.S. funding situation well:

But speaking with reporters after the hearing, Stern warned of major diplomatic fallout if House Republicans succeeded in forcing the United States to disengage on the international climate stage.

“This is seen to be one of the core issues, frankly, facing humanity, and for the United States to take itself out of the game and sit on the sidelines would be very detrimental to our overall standing and leverage and credibility in the world,” he said. “We’re obviously not doing that. We’re doing just the opposite.”

— Stephen Lacey and Joe Romm

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