May 052011

[This is the translation of my recent interview for the Italian magazin e La Nuova Ecologia] 

1)      Can you explain to our Italian readers what the current status of Climate Change legislation is in the United States?

The situation in the United States is a bit tricky to understand for European observers due to the country’s complicated political system of “divided government” that provides “checks and balances” between the executive and legislative governmental branches. The House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy & Security Act, a far-reaching climate and energy bill in June 2009. This was the first time that a chamber of the U.S. parliament – or “Congress” – passed a bill that sets mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions: 17 percent emission reductions below 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. The decision was very tight with a vote of 219-212, with 211 Democrats and only 8 Republicans supporting the bill. Since the House legislation has passed, all focus is on the Senate, the second chamber of the Congress. Here, Democrats Barbara Boxer and John Kerry introduced the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act in September of last year. This bill would reduce greenhouse gas emissions 3 percent below 2005 levels by 2012, 20% by 2020, 42% by 2030, and 83% by 2050. The bill also includes massive public investment in clean energy and carbon capture and storage (CCS) research. While hailed by environmentalist, from the moment of its introduction the 821 pages of the Kerry-Boxer bill have faced fierce opposition from Republican lawmakers and Conservative commentators as too complicated, too wide-ranging, and too costly. It is clear that the bill will not be passed in its original version.

 2)      So what happens next?

There is now an additional bill that has gained some attention: First, the Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal Act, introduced in December 2009 by Senators Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins. With more modest mandatory caps below 2012 levels of 5% by 2020 and 80% below by 2050, this legislation tries to find new middle ground for the climate change and energy debate. Most importantly, it would create a “cap and dividend” system that gives up to 75% of the revenue generated from auctioning of pollution permits to American households to offset the likely rise in energy costs after companies get regulated. The remaining revenues go into a fund intended to continue energy research and transition to a clean energy economy. In order to securely pass the Senate, any climate bill will need 60 votes. Currently, I would estimate the numbers of very probable supporters in the low 40s. About one third of the Senators are passionately opposed. The rest are fence sitters that will decide whether there will be climate legislation in the United States or not.

3)      What do you hope will come out of this?

U.S. lawmakers now have a historic opportunity to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Their decision is critical – not just for America, but for the world as a whole. For two decades, international climate policy was gridlocked by a mutual blockade of the United States and the major developing countries. But the finger pointing at China and India is ridiculous. Not only have these countries hardly any historic responsibility for the problem and their per capita emission today are still a small portion of ours, they are in many areas already acting more determined than the richest and most powerful country in the world. We will need the USA because of its large ecologic footprint but also because it is an economic, technologic and political powerhouse. With likely Democratic losses in the mid-term elections in November of this year, the situation will become even more difficult than it is now. I hope that a majority of Senators realizes the urgency of the issue and the signs of the times. Strong climate legislation is without a doubt in the interest of the American people. If a bill passes the Senate, it will probably been a moderated and simplified compromise between the Kerry-Boxer and Cantwell-Collins acts. It will not trigger enough action in the U.S. and the world to prevent dangerous climate change – but it will be an important new beginning of action for both the country and the globe.


4)      Is it true that the US green movement is disappointed with President Obama? Can you explain the reasons?

Disappointed with the President are only those who do not understand how the U.S. political system works. Obama made climate and energy a key issue in his election campaign, despite potential risks of such a strategy. After his election, he said his government was “deeply committed to passing a bill that creates new American jobs and the clean energy incentives that foster innovation.” In both his 2009 inauguration and the 2010 State of the Union addresses he called on Congress to work with the White House on strong climate and energy action. He is convinced that ““the nation that leads the world in creating new sources of clean energy will be the nation that leads the 21st century global economy.” In May 2009, President Obama announced the creation of a new federal policy to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and improve fuel economy. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included more than $80 billion in clean energy investments. He has strongly supported the climate bill that passed the House, as well as the ones currently pending in the Senate. He has announced that if Congress is unable to act, he will strongly support regulation of greenhouse gases through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Air Act. Yes, Obama has also supported more off-shore and on-shore drilling for oil in the US, and supports new nuclear power plants, but this is a small portion of his energy policy compared to renewables, natural gas, efficiency measures, cleaner cars, a renovation of rail, etc., and at least in parts  a concession directed at those law-makers at the fences that are still hesitant to support comprehensive climate legislation at all. Obama’s tactical behavior on climate and energy is insofar not too different from how he moved on health care. Altogether, Obama is not the problem.

5)      What is the problem then?

One, that the health care debate has overshadowed most of the political debate in the 16 months since Obama’s election. There was simply not enough political space for a second, very controversial and for many Americans still highly ideological debate. The first successful overhaul of the delinquent U.S. health care system in six decades will put new wind in the sails of climate campaigners, and Obama has left little doubt that energy and climate legislation – rather in this order – is the new prioritization. Second, the many veto players in the U.S. political system which make a supermajority necessary for the passage of any major legislative act. Third, the strong influence of private money in U.S. policy-making. Strong climate action and a transition of the U.S. energy system is in the interest of all American people – apart from those that have an economic interest in the status quo. The fossil fuel industry might still be the strongest business branch in the country, and it profits from every single day on which everything remains as it has been. And fourth, a powerful minority whose convictions are rooted in 1980s Reaganomics and Newt Gingrichs 1990s Contract with America. Many observers often overlook that the United States has seen a swing of the pendulum to the political right over the course of the last 30 years. It is more likely than not that with the 2008 elections the pendulum has started to swing back but there is still a substantial number of committed political heavyweights in government, media, academia, and industry who think that emission reductions will result in the fall of the American empire and who would rather see the world go down than the power of the government go up.


6)      Italy’s governement is pushing to re-start the study for the nuclear power in the country that was rejected by a referendum 30 years ago. What is happening in the Us with the nuclear energy?

The Obama administration as well as many key players in Congress support provisions to generate more electricity from nuclear power in the United States than is currently the case. In February, three decades after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident halted all new reactor orders, President Obama announced the first loan guarantees – more than $8 billion – to build two nuclear reactors in Georgia. Obama called nuclear a key component of thorough energy legislation, giving utility companies more incentive to turn from carbon-polluting fossil fuels to almost zero-carbon nuclear fuel. “This is only the beginning,” Obama said. His 2011 budget would triple – to $54.5 billion – loan guarantees available for new nuclear construction. With the climate and energy bills in Congress also including support for atomic energy, many think we might be at the brink of a nuclear renaissance in the United States.

7)      Do you support the building of new power plants in order to save the climate?

I think a nuclear renaissance would be very unfortunate. It is not a renewable energy because it needs material input, most importantly of uranium, that is a rather scarce resource if we want to use nuclear power globally to fight climate change. But then, who wants to increase nuclear energy worldwide, including in Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, or Bolivia? How do we contain nuclear proliferation if we make nuclear energy an important component of our energy strategy? We have seen in the past how difficult it is to permit the use of nuclear energy but control the production of weapons-grade plutonium. Add the high risk nuclear plants pose as targets for terrorist attacks. Most importantly, however, nuclear does not make sense economically. It is not the case that no reactor has been built in the US because it was forbidden. It was allowed to build reactors but industry did not want to run the risk of exorbitant costs, civil resistance, and not knowing where to ship the nuclear waste. To spend public money on overcoming these problems makes no sense. It would be much better spent on energy efficiency and renewable energies, and maybe natural gas which can work as a natural ally for renewables and a bridge technology to the not-too-distant future where highly efficient economies are entirely powered by renewables. Nuclear energy is the wrong way to go

8)      What should Europe do?


The influence of Europe on the United States is limited, but existing. If, for example, European industry representatives come to the US and explain that the EU Emissions Trading Scheme is not the end of the world, if they even support it because it spurs innovation and reduces inefficiencies – then this can be very powerful indeed. Most importantly, however, Europe must return to the leadership role that it once had. Leading means implementing strong mitigation policies at home and committing to ambitious targets and international aid for poorer countries internationally. Leading does not mean going forward on the condition that others do the same.

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