Women wearing the masks of G8 leaders protest climate change in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Image via Oxfam International
The tales of impending doom about manmade climate change are coming down so fast and furious these days that it can be tough to keep up. But the latest terrifying missive (courtesy of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC) is, mercifully, served with a bit of soothing chaser: Apparently, the political will to actually do something about reducing carbon emissions is starting to emerge around the globe. After blowing it for decades—perhaps best symbolized by that time Ronald Reagan's chief of staff, in an act that will go down as one of the dumbest in American history, insisted on removing the solar panels installed by Jimmy Carter on the White House roof—are political elites in the US and abroad ready to inconvenience themselves in the name of saving the planet?
"Especially when you look outside the US, there does seem to be rising political will to tackle climate change in many countries," said Glenn Hurowitz, an environmental advocate and executive director of Catapult Campaigns, a group that has been prodding foreign corporations on deforestation, among other issues. "An analysis just came out showing that if China fully implements its plans to crack down on coal, then the world will be back on track to meet the 2 degree target by 2020, which is really exciting."
So there's growing evidence that major powers—even those in the developing world whose economies have been industrializing at a furious pace over the past decade—are beginning to at least consider carbon pollution when making policy. In China, the new government under President Xi Jinping has promised to rein in pollution as part of its effort to assuage the quality of life ambitions of a burgeoning middle class. And Brazil has broken through as a real success story, reducing deforestation by 75 percent since 2004 and in the process curbing its own emissions by more than every member of the Kyoto Protocol combined.
Closer to home, however, the picture is still a pretty dark one.
"We haven't seen a major environmental law pass Congress in nearly two decades," said Alex Formuzis, vice president at the Environmental Working Group and a former aide to multiple US senators. "Capitol Hill is just extremely polarized, and the foothold that the oil and gas industry—the fossil fuel industry—has on the Hill is strong." It's true: A quick glance at financial disclosure reports shows that the energy industry effectively has many members of Congress on their payroll. And the 2010 midterms swept into office not just a fresh batch of climate change skeptics, but straight-up deniers who don't seem to care all that much what life on Earth will be like a few years from now (perhaps because they expect the Salvation is just around the corner).
In a nod to the hostile political climate, the IPCC's latest report focuses on mitigation, or what our best options are for stopping this trainwreck along with a sense of the costs. As you might expect, making a downpayment by reducing carbon emissions and exploring clean energy alternatives now (or by 2020) is likely to prove a good bit cheaper than waiting until sea levels have started submerging cities and wreaking havoc with more frequent bouts of extreme weather. In the United States, the closest lawmakers came to taking real action at a national level was when the House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) in 2009, only to let it die in the Democratic-controlled Senate the following year. Since tri-corner hats became a thing at right-wing political rallies around that time, Congress hasn't gone anywhere near a cap-and-trade system—or, for that matter, any other comprehensive approach to putting a price on carbon (which most experts agree is the only way to discourage pollution by businesses and consumers).
President Obama, to his credit, has vowed to use the Environmental Protection Agency to rein in pollution even if Congress does not act, though so far just one significant "rule" (or regulation) has come down—and that was in January of this year—putting a limit on the the volume of carbon emissions permitted at future power plants. The real fight will come in June, when the EPA issues new rules for existing (coal-fired) power plants, which are responsible for about 40 percent of US carbon emissions. Republicans are sure to raise hell and call votes in the House (and even try to force some in the Senate) to block the measures, though most advocates I canvassed are at least cautiously optimistic that they have the numbers to keep the nihilists at bay. (It's also worth noting that billionaire hedge-funder Tom Steyer just vowed to shell out $50 million of his own cash and $50 million from other donors to force climate change onto the agenda in this November's midterm elections).
Perhaps most important of all, the State Department is expected to (finally) release its "national interest determination" on the Keystone XL pipeline this spring as well, essentially a report for the White House on whether building a huge oil tube across North America is a good idea. Some labor unions, despite their traditional allegience to the Democratic Party, are threatening liberals in Congress with retaliation for opposing the project, worried killing it would have a negative impact on job growth. But advocates across the environmental community agree that only if the White House decides to block the monstrosity will we have a really tangible sign that the politics of climate change have shifted in the right direction.
"If they reject the Keystone XL pipeline because of its climate impact," said Hurowitz, "that will send a powerful signal to Wall Street that investments in fossil fuels don't have a viable future."
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