Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 7 March 2011

US Congress blow to global green agenda

The environmental crisis is rapidly worsening, but recent moves by conservatives in the US Congress are dampening the ability of the US and other countries to take strong global action.  


Just when the world needs a big boost of pro-environment action, there is activism of the opposite kind  --  conservatives in the Congress rolling back the green agenda in the United States

Last week, Republicans introduced bills in the US Congress to prevent the Environment Protection Agency from using air pollution laws to reduce carbon dioxide. 

If the bills are passed, the EPA would not be able to regulate carbon emissions from factories and power plants. 

This would strike at the heart of the US administration's efforts to combat climate change.

It is now clear that the US Congress will not itself adopt climate action laws, since the Republicans who are generally skeptical about climate change now control one branch of Congress, the House of Representatives.

However, the US President still has powers to take his own actions, through the EPA and other agencies.  And state governments can also have their own initiatives.

But the Republicans, backed by some big industries and companies, are making a concerted effort to stop such environmental initiatives.  So Congress is much more likely to adopt anti-environment rather than pro-environment bills.  

In fact the new energy tax prevention act is designed to counter the existing clean air act which empowers the EPA to act.

The London-based Guardian newspaper (5 March) describes what it calls the greatest assault on environmental protection ever seen in the US.

“This is almost unprecedented in environmental history, in that they are moving in so many directions and in so many ways to effect the same results,” commented Bill Becker, secretary of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.

James Goldstene, of the California Air Resources Board (which is in charge of protecting air quality in California), testified in Congress against the new bill.  For firms that accept the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change and policy imperative for emission reductions, the failure of Congress to pass climate legislation is itself increasing the uncertainty for investors, he said.

“By going further, and gutting the Clean Air Act to remove sensible EPA regulations, the proposed legislation would send the stark message that the US is not serious about creating a stable or predictable regulatory environment, not serious about attracting investment, and not serious about being a leader in the future economy,” he stated.

Besides the new bill, the Republicans have also proposed to cut the budget of the EPA by 30%, deeper than any other agency, as part of their overall budget proposal.

This would starve the EPA of funds needed to regulate carbon dioxide, and remove funds for other activities such as to protect salmon in San Francisco Bay and treat sewage going to Florida's lakes.  It would also weaken rules for mercury poisoning, according to the Guardian article.

The Republican proposal also includes cutting off the funds for the post of President Obama's energy and climate advisor and the state department's envoy to the UN climate negotiations, the article adds.

This bad news from the US could not come at a worse time.  The United Nations this week will be negotiating the terms of the Rio Plus 20 Summit, to be held in 2012 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the landmark UN Conference on Environment and Development.

Since the 1992 Rio Summit the global environment has deteriorated significantly.  There are multiple environment crises including climate change, extinction of species, decline of fish stocks, loss of fertile land through degradation, unsustainable pressure on resources, dwindling amount of fresh water.

There are increasing risks that environmental damage could pass “unknown points of no return”, as the UNEP report Global Environment Outlook warned in 2007.

In the climate talks under the UN Climate Convention, governments are grappling with the tall order of having to cut global Greenhouse Gas emissions drastically as soon as possible, and to come to some agreement on how the burden of these emission cuts are to be distributed among countries.

All countries are obliged to take climate actions, and the developed countries have agreed to take the lead and show the way.

The US is the most important of the rich countries.  Thus the anti-environment mood in the US Congress will cast a shadow over the Rio Plus 20 negotiations and the climate talks, as it will affect what the US delegation can or cannot commit to do.

And this in turn will influence the position of the other countries.  There may thus be a downward spiral of the level of actions governments will commit to.

Hopefully public awareness and action in the US will eventually change the position of the Congress, for the world needs the cooperation of the US to tackle the global environmental crisis.