Why Is A US Climate Bill So Elusive?

According to at least one US commentator, Senate climate and energy legislation is now as dead as the parrot in Monty Python’s famous sketch. Without rehearsing the possible scenarios for introducing the bill at a later stage or the ins-and-outs of ‘lame duck sessions‘ and their possible voting scenarios, why is even such an apparently lame climate change bill so difficult to pass in the US?

Some of course blame it’s very lameness and the Democrat leadership’s unwillingness to push hard on the issue of climate itself. Others are dancing on the bill’s grave, arguing that putting cap and trade at its heart was a fatal flaw. And a further phalanx of pro-climate action views direct their anger at the ‘moral cowards‘ defending ‘narrow electoral interests’ in the Senate.The cap element of the bill died long ago. Cautious Senators with pressing electoral interests – such as not being seen to vote for increasing energy costs ahead of November elections – and no doubt significant palm-greasing by corporate interest groups made economy- or even energy utility-wide measures almost impossible. Sadly, cap and trade has taken a renewable energy standard down with it.

The key problem with cap and trade is not policy design but politics. The EU ETS is working well as a carbon market, but because all of its flaws require some tough politicking to correct, it is not as yet significantly serving its primary policy goal of reducing emissions. The more it does serve these interests, the less popular it will be. How much additional cost consumers will shoulder before it is too much is a question as yet without an answer. But putting costs to the fore and deferring benefits is unlikely to prove popular and doing so for climate reasons is, as we’ve argued here before, likely to prove unpopular.

There may well now be a serious rift opening up in the hitherto mostly united climate change movement. With a US bill still elusive and after the underwhelming outcome of the Copenhagen climate summit, many want a back to basics debate focussed on the science, the severity of impacts and urgency. Tom Freidman in the New York Times typifies this approach with a quasi-religious pitch that suggests we will all face a climate judgement day. Alex Evans in a recent ippr debate pursues a similar line of argument, urging Noah-like preparedness.

To broaden and deepen the appeal of policy that’s designed to have climate benefits, there is in our view a need to change the messenger and the message. The environmental movement that brought us Copenhagen and the US Senate bill has a very significant green wedge of support and has demonstrably influenced many leaders. But beyond the offices of the campaign groups and the corridors of power, green lifestyles are not vote-winners and doom-laden climate message is quickly lost in the miasma of ordinary people’s lives.

The ‘cowardly’ Senators who failed to indicate support for the US bill are probably acutely aware of this conundrum. It’s time for the rest of us to wake up to it.

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