“Obama is not the problem” – Interview with Alexander Ochs on the current debate about U.S. Climate and Energy Policy

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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.

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The World Looks to Americans and Europeans

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Nov 042009
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

As a former Minister of the Environment turned Chancellor, Angela Merkel had already proven those wrong who surmised that environment positions are a dead end to high-rising political aspirations; now she became only the second German politician (after Konrad Adenauer, the first head of a German government after the Second World War, in 1957) who received the honor to address the U.S. Congress; and as a widely respected leader on environmental issues who is, at the same time, the leader of a conservative party, she would be well positioned to appeal to cautious Republicans when talking about climate change and energy reformation—at least I had hoped so in a recent interview with Reuters.

Angela Merkel in her speech on Capitol Hill yesterday, just weeks after her reelection for a second term (this time as a leader of a center-right coalition) was moved by the honor and the standing ovations she received from U.S. lawmakers even before she had started her speech. Following up on her promises, she spent a good portion of her talk on climate change, urging Congress and the Obama administration to take bold steps to address the issue, in her view one of the “great tests” of the 21st century. “We all know we have no time to lose,” she said.

Read the rest of the story on Dateline: Copenhagen.