Just in time for the UN summit in New York next week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned earlier this week that due to the Senate’s busy schedule it might not act on a comprehensive climate change bill until 2010. Health care and regulatory reform are also high on the Senate’s agenda, and according to Reid’s statement, the climate change bill might have to wait until the other two are dealt with.
This follows Senators Boxer and Kerry’s announcement at the beginning of the month, that rather than early September, they are now aiming to unveil their version of the bill at the end of the month. A target that was repeated this week by Sen. Kerry saying that “We are aiming for this month.”
Reid’s statement naturally caused quite a stir, though it was later somewhat retracted by Reid’s spokesman, who commented that “no decisions have been made” on floor timing for a comprehensive climate and energy bill. And two days after his original comment, Reid insisted that he hopes to move a climate bill “as quickly as we can”
In response though, the EU ambassador to the US expressed his concern by the delay which will push the decision about a US climate policy until after the UNFCCC meeting in Copenhagen, noting that “if this were to happen it would open the United States to the charge that it does not take its international commitments seriously, and that these commitments will always take second place to domestic politics“
This feeling is echoed by the concerns expressed by environmental organisations such as Environmental Defense Fund, whose international counsel Annie Petsonk pointed out that “The appearance to the international community would be that the U.S. Congress is just adrift,” and others who worry that this lack of domestic progress in the US will give other countries an excuse not to act as well.
Obama’s administration also acknowledges the importance of US legislation to international progress as was evident when Todd Stern, the State Department’s special climate change envoy, testified in front of the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming saying that “Nothing the United States can do is more important for the international negotiation process than passing robust, comprehensive clean energy legislation as soon as possible” and stressing that “President Obama and the Secretary of State, along with our entire Administration are committed to action on this issue“
Even though the legislative process is delayed, the US is still making progress in its attempt to curb GHG emissions, as evident by two developments in the past week.
On Monday Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed an order setting up a Climate Change Response Council and eight regional response centres to study and respond to the expected impacts of climate change on wildlife and historic places. The order also includes a commitment to produce a plan to reduce the Interior Department’s own greenhouse gas emissions, including setting a firm target. The Interior Department, which manages 20 percent of the land in the United States, will also explore methods to sequester carbon by storing it underground and by absorbing it through forests and rangelands.
These two developments give somewhat more weight to Todd Stern’s warning to countries such as China and India, that if there is no cooperation on international action to reduce emissions, Congress is more likely to put in place protectionist measures, as at least the US can show some domestic progress.
These actions though, while beneficial in mitigation of CO2 emissions, are not as reassuring to other countries of the US willingness to tackle climate change as actual legislation. The US failure to ratify Kyoto is still very much on everybody’s mind and Obama will have to work hard to convince other countries, especially major players like the EU and China, that any agreement signed in Copenhagen – if one is at all signed – stands a good chance of later passing Congress. This might motivate him to be involved more closely with the legislation than he has been so far (more like he has been with health care reform), which in the end might result in a better bill. If that happens, Reid’s statement would have been for the better.