Grading Congress on Global Warming

Paul Brown is a guest blogger for The Hill. Brown was the environment correspondent for The Guardian newspaper for 16 years and has written extensively about climate change. His new book is Global Warning: The Last Chance for Change.

For the last 10 years the United States has been seen by the rest of the world as the main obstacle to international efforts aimed at avoiding the worst effects of climate change.

Of course, George W. Bush, as the president, has been seen as the single most obdurate figure, and has been the leader held personally responsible by environmental groups for holding up international progress - but the US Congress has apparently been happy to sit idly by and let it happen.

As someone who has spent years attending climate talks from the 1980s, through two Earth Summits and seen many so-called breakthroughs and declarations thwarted, there has been little doubt in my mind that the United States negotiating stance and influence has been largely to blame. Not a single set of talks has passed without a group of Congressmen wholly opposed to action on climate change appearing to try and obstruct proceedings - that is aside from the baleful influence of the scores of US-led fossil fuel lobbyists.

Recent news from America has been more cheering. It has been widely reported that change in the political complexion and climate of the 110th Congress has led to 125 bills, resolutions and amendments on the issue. It is clearly a live and increasingly urgent political discussion, and many think any presidential candidate will be hard pushed to ignore the dangers of climate change as the race for the White House heats up.

But as in Europe, political rhetoric, while grand, is not easy to translate into action. My own country, the United Kingdom, has acknowledged climate change as a desperate problem for 10 years now but has done virtually nothing in terms of policy to tackle the increasing carbon emissions. The government has been tinkering by putting up fuel prices for vehicles, mildly taxing air passengers, setting targets for and stimulating research and development for renewable energies, but it has hardly dented the problem. In fact the Blair government, and now his successor Gordon Brown have both acknowledged they have failed to reach the Labour party’s far from adequate target of a 20% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010. Despite these admissions there are still no policies in place to make good the short fall.

My research and years of reporting on climate change has led me to keep a close eye on both scientific and political progress. The scientists have progressively tied down the uncertainties. They are saying straight out that we (the human race) are facing a calamity, and very soon, if urgent action is not taken. The political progress that started fast in 1992 at the Earth Summit, progressed well by international treaty standards until 1997 when the Kyoto agreement was hailed as a vital first step on a long hard road. Since then there has not been a second decisive, and much needed, step forward.

Yet in the intervening years from 1997, while politics has slowed to a snail’s pace, it has been established that mankind is responsible for most of the problem of global warming. What has also become clear in the past few months is that these same scientists have been underestimating the problem. Take just one single aspect – sea level rise. Having just returned from Greenland on a trip with IPCC scientists it was clear to us all that the melt rate of the ice cap has accelerated rapidly. Cities like New York and large parts of the coastline – for example in Florida – are going to disappear. This speed and potentially devastating level of ice melt was not even taken into consideration in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, it was all too new to be included. It is no longer a question of if our coastlines will change shape but when, and the when will be this century, not next.

So the need for action was never greater, or more obviously so, and yet so far it is still all talk and no action. This is remarkable particularly in a country like America famous for its innovation and can-do attitude. The rest of the world has been used to looking to America for technological lead yet on this vital issue the country clings on to oil and the last century’s outdated industrial model of dirty sunset industries to keep the economy going.

One of the defences for this attitude brought up time and time again has been the need to keep a competitive edge with the new economies, particularly China. Yet China sees climate change as one of its biggest business opportunities. It is hoping to export to the rest of the world the means to generate electricity without the need to resort to fossil fuels. What has happened to the US’s desire to lead the world and its competitive edge?

Looking through the current proposed legislation and resolutions on climate change being discussed by the elected representatives of the most powerful country and economy on Earth there is the same tendency to tinker with the issue that has been seen these past 10 years in Europe. It does not mean a less enjoyable lifestyle but it does mean changes in the way we look at the quality of life. Carbon trading offsets and bio fuels are a tiny part of the solution but not enough.

This is a crisis for all of us that in the light of history will make the threat of terrorism seem like an inconvenient footnote at the beginning of the 21st century. If anything the footnote will say that in ignoring climate change the US government so disadvantaged the poor and hungry and it created a fertile recruiting ground for more terrorists. Climate change and terrorism are all part of one issue - the future of our civilisation and how we manage it.

The scientists tell us we have 10 years left to turn this problem around. This is such a short time that probably only the members of the most powerful legislature on the planet have the ability to give the lead to make that possible. The gain, apart from saving the planet, is that at the same time the United States can snatch back the industrial lead in the technologies to combat climate change. This is being gained by enterprising people in Europe, the Far East and particularly China. The jury is still out on whether Congress and the Senate have the vision to take the right steps, and the collective political will to pull it off.


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