We Are the Green Team

Will Obama's environmental advisors spearhead a new global warming treaty by next year?


On Monday, President-elect Barack Obama revealed the "Green Team" that will guide his energy and climate change policies. Its members include Nobel physicist Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy; former New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection chief Lisa Jackson as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency; and Carol Browner, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Bill Clinton, as the White House's "energy/climate czar," a position tasked with leading the Obama administration's battle against man-made global warming.

Their nominations came just after the United Nations' annual climate change conference sputtered to an indecisive close at Pozna?, Poland last week. Climate negotiators from nearly 190 countries made little headway toward a new global warming treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012. At the Bali climate change conference in 2007, negotiators promised that the world would adopt binding greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions limits at the 2009 Copenhagen conference.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, industrialized nations are supposed to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases—chiefly carbon dioxide—by an average of 5 percent below the levels emitted in 1990. According to the latest United Nations data, the emissions from former Soviet Bloc Kyoto Protocol signatories fell 37 percent, largely due to the collapse of their economies. On the other hand, emissions from modern industrialized Kyoto signatories rose by 3.7 percent. For example, between 1990 and 2004, Canada's emissions increased 27 percent, Australia's 25 percent, Japan's 6.5 percent, Italy's 12 percent, Turkey's 72 percent, and Spain's 49 percent. Emissions from non-Kyoto parties rose steeply from 1990 levels as well, including China's by 47 percent, India's by 55 percent, and the United States' by 16 percent. China is now the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. In fact, global emissions grew by 28 percent during this decade, three times faster than the 9 percent increase that occurred in the 1990s.

Turning these global emissions trends around may be much harder than United Nations analysts previously thought. A sobering new study in the journal Climate Research by researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the University of Colorado, for instance, suggests that it is unlikely that most developing countries will be able to afford new low-carbon energy technologies on their own. "There is simply no evidence that developing countries will somehow become wealthier and be in a position to install more environmentally friendly technologies," says Patricia Romero Lankao, an NCAR sociologist who is the lead author of the study. The study projects that the economic growth of many poor countries will overwhelm increases in energy efficiency, resulting in ever higher emissions of greenhouse gases.

During the negotiations at Pozna?, representatives of the developing countries pointed out that rich countries have loaded up the atmosphere with extra carbon dioxide as their economies grew. They argued that as a matter of climate justice, poor countries can either use cheap carbon-based energy to lift their people out of poverty or else rich countries can agree to install more expensive low-carbon energy production technologies in their countries. As part of a new global climate treaty, poor countries want rich countries to pay $50 to $80 billion per year into a climate adaptation fund to finance their energy transformation. Why this form of foreign aid would be any more effective than the massive failed programs of the past is not addressed.

For years, the United States has been cast as the villain in the global warming negotiations, contrasted against the ecological saints that make up the European Union. However, during the Pozna? conference, EU leaders squabbled over a plan to reduce the EU's emissions by 20 percent below their 1990 levels by 2020. Disappointed environmental activists argue that this commitment is a "mirage," and that the EU will actually cut its emissions by around 4 percent.

Meanwhile, the world waits to see what Barack Obama will do. During the campaign, Obama pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020—which implies a decrease of 16 percent from current emissions. In order to do this, Obama wants to impose a cap-and-auction system that would ration the amount of greenhouse gases that businesses would be allowed to emit. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), who opposes carbon emissions limits, has dubbed Obama's proposal a "cap-and-tax" scheme. Each year, under Obama's plan, the feds would set the number of tons of greenhouse gases that could be emitted and then auction that number of permits to the companies and organizations that need to emit them. Thus the auction functions as a variable tax on carbon.

Besides raising revenue for the government, the goal of such a rationing scheme is to increase the price of energy produced by burning fossil fuels, thus spuring the development of low-carbon and no-carbon energy supplies. At his press conference introducing his new Green Team, Obama promised to address the "long-term threat of climate change" with "a 21st-century economic recovery plan that puts Americans to work building wind farms, solar panels, and fuel-efficient cars." But will the Obama administration be ready to cut a deal on a new global climate change treaty at Copenhagen one year from now?

Some political progressives don't think so. For example, Eileen Claussen, the president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, told the Associated Press, "The U.S. won't be in a position to negotiate with specific targets and timetables in 2009." Why? Because she thinks that the new Obama administration won't have time to finish domestic climate change legislation by next December. In addition, Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, noted at his ClimateProgress blog, "It is all but inconceivable that Obama can deliver the 67 votes in the Senate needed to ratify a global climate treaty—no matter what happens in the 12 months between Pozna? and Copenhagen."

Inconceivable? Well, yes. As Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Obama's emissary at the Pozna? talks, explained to Reuters, "What's important is that we go to Copenhagen understanding that no treaty is going to pass the U.S. Senate unless it is a global solution. China, India, Russia—all countries have to be part of the solution." The big, rapidly growing developing countries must make some kind of commitment to rein in their greenhouse gas emissions, or it's a no-go in the U.S. Senate. On Monday, President-elect Obama also stated, "Just as we work to reduce our own emissions, we must forge international solutions to ensure that every nation is doing its part." Recall that back in 1997, the U.S. Senate voted 95 to 0 for a resolution opposing any global warming treaty that did not include emissions reduction commitments from developing countries. As a result, President Bill Clinton never bothered to submit the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate for ratification.

President-elect Obama and his Green Team have their work cut out for them if they plan to meet the Copenhagen deadline. They must persuade not just American citizens but citizens of both rich and poor countries that they will have to start paying substantially more to heat and cool their homes, drive their cars, and run their factories in order to avert the indeterminate threat of man-made global warming.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.