A group of Massachusetts voters are giving Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) until this Thursday at noon to publicly announce his intention to vote against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline poison-pill provision attached to the payroll tax cut bill currently working its way through Congress. If he does not do so, they will hold a march from Senator Brown’s office to the nearby National Guard Recruiting Office, led by a former National Guardsman in uniform, to highlight the need for the National Guard to accelerate its recruitment efforts in anticipation of climate disasters in the years ahead. Craig S. Altemose, one of the climate activists and a state appointee to the Massachusetts Climate Protection and Green Economy Advisory Committee, wants Brown to choose a clean energy future:
At this very moment, we have the technology and knowledge we need to rapidly and responsibly transition our economy away from the fossil fuels which are threatening our very lives. Rather than playing around with outdated 20th century pipelines like other Republicans, we hope Senator Brown will support the tax cut without the pipeline, and further support investments in 21st century renewable energy like wind, solar, and geothermal that will make our people safer, healthier, and happier.
Brown has avoided taking a stance on the tar sands pipeline, and has explained away global warming as an “ebb and flow.” Most notably, perhaps, Brown is one of the Koch brothers’ favorite politicians, receiving massive donations in return for his allegiance to their polluter politics:
Republican leadership in Congress have decided to use must-pass payroll tax cut legislation as a vehicle to push key polluter priorities, despite a veto threat from the White House. House GOP have attached a rider to extend a Clean Air Act loophole for the coal industry, daring a White House veto. The coal-powered poison pill, inserted into Title I, Section B of H.R. 3630 as the “EPA Regulatory Relief Act,” would establish a five-year delay in Boiler Maximum Available Control Technology (MACT) rules, striking down four Environmental Protection Agency rules. Section A is Rep Lee Terry’s (R-NE) Keystone XL poison pill rider for the oil industry.
The Boiler MACT language, taken from Rep. Morgan Griffith’s (R-VA) bill H.R. 2250, would keep in place a long-standing loophole in the Clean Air Act, that exempted coal-fired “utility boilers” from regulations of their hazardous air pollutants like heavy metals, including mercury, arsenic, chromium, and nickel; and acid gases, including hydrogen chloride and hydrogen fluoride; and particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides.
In October, as the House voted to pass Griffith’s bill and H.R. 2681, a related bill to exempt cement plants from clean air laws, as stand-alone legislation, the White House issued a veto threat of the attempt to “undermine public health protections under the Clean Air Act (CAA).”
Today, the White House issued a new veto threat for H.R. 3630, the payroll tax cut bill including this poison pill:
H.R. 3630 seeks to put the burden of paying for the bill on working families, while giving a free pass to the wealthiest and to big corporations by protecting their loopholes and subsidies.
This rider, like the Keystone XL provision, is genuinely a poison pill. “For each year of delay,” the U.S. Climate Action Network noted, “thousands of people will die.”
However, both Griffith’s bill and its Senate counterpart, S. 1392, enjoy broad support in Congress. The legislation passed the House by a vote of 275-142, with no Republican opposition and 41 Democrats in support. The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), has 40 co-sponsors in total, including twelve Democrats: Wyden, Mark Begich (AK), Kay Hagan (NC), Herb Kohl (WI), Mary Landrieu (LA), Joe Manchin (WV), Claire McCaskill (MO), Barbara Mikulski (MD), Bill Nelson (FL), Ben Nelson (NE), Mark Pryor (AR), and Jim Webb (VA).
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Today, the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on legislation extending the payroll tax cut (HR 3630). The bill is polluted with two riders: Rep. Lee Terry’s (R-NE) Keystone XL pipeline approval legislation and text to block the EPA’s Boiler MACT rules for hazardous industrial coal plant pollution. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity are campaigning with a slew of misleading ads about the EPA’s boiler MACT rules, calling the regulations on hazardous air pollutants like chromium and acid gases “onerous” despite the fact that they only apply to a small fraction of the coal industry. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), with representatives of the American Lung Association and American Public Health Association, will hold a press conference today to oppose the poison pills in the payroll tax cut and appropriations bills.
An e-mail from API advertised an open casting call for “all ages and races to express their views” in a commercial spot. The basic qualifications read: “You are willing to go on camera and state your beliefs” and “You are comfortable portraying YOURSELF! They want REAL PEOPLE not Actors!”
But when Gabe Elsner of the watchdog Checks and Balances Project attended the commercial’s open casting, he wasn’t even allowed to finish his sentence about clean energy jobs:
Elsner is escorted to the sound stage and asked to repeat the following lines:
“I vote,” he is prompted.
“I vote,” he repeats.
“I vote!” more emphatically this time.
“I vote!” Elsner repeats.
“For American Jobs,” he is told.
“For American Clean Energy Jobs,” he responds.
“Just, ‘For American Jobs,’” the staffer says.
“For American Clean Energy Jobs,” Elsner repeats. “I’d like to add that…”
“Just deliver the line. That we have. Just, because, just cut for a second,” the staffer says. “Are you…I want to make sure that you are okay with what we are doing as far as the script goes.”
Elsner says, “Well I didn’t see the script. I was told that I was going to be able to deliver my views on camera.”
Elsner never finished his thoughts on camera; he was simply escorted away from the set. API tells an altered version, where it claimed in a followup blog post that “some activists” decided “not to spend their Saturday hanging around a bunch of other people who do support oil and natural gas.” But it is more likely API spoon-fed those supporters with favorable “views” just as they treated Elsner.
There is an inevitability that a Big Oil commercial must resort to insincerity and imaginary people’s opinions. The industry is sitting on enormous profits, even as 74 percent of Americans want to end the industry’s subsidies.
This isn’t the first time API has misled on its commercials. In 2009, API doctored the race of two iStock models in a promotional pamphlet. And while the newest API ad won’t be released until January, here is an older commercial with equally under-enthused, overly scripted Americans talking about oil:
If, like me, you aren’t a devotee of the UN climate negotiations, reading the headlines isn’t much help.
From the glass-half-full crowd: Progress at end of Durban Cop17 climate talks (LA Times). Reason to smile about Durban climate conference (Eugene Robinson in the WPost). Climate deal salvaged after marathon talks (The Guardian).
From the pessimists: How the world failed to address climate change–again (Michael Levi at The Atlantic.com). The Durban climate deal failed to meet the needs of the developing world (The Guardian, again). COP out (South Africa’s Cape Times).
COP out strikes me as about right. To gain some insight in what happened, and why, I called David Victor, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, the author of an excellent new book called Global Warming Gridlock and one of the smartest people I know when it comes to understanding global climate politics. David has followed the UN process closely since its beginnings in the early 1990s, and he has become convinced that it is the wrong way to deal with the climate threat.
Durban didn’t change his mind.
“In terms of substance, they have not really achieved much,” David says. “They’ve agreed to have negotiations about what they might agree to in the future.”
To be sure, as the optimists argue, this is the first time that the governments of countries that are the biggest carbon emitters — China, the United States, the EU and India — have agreed to negotiate legally binding restrictions. That’s a big change from the terms of the Kyoto protocol, which essentially excluded developing countries, among them China, the world’s biggest carbon emitter.
But, as David writes in his book:
The world is full of promises that are not kept, and the study of international institutions is about understanding when those promises are credible and have an impact on behavior, and when they are smoke.
The so-called Durban platform is a promise to negotiate a new climate deal by 2015 to replace the Kyoto protocol and take effect in 2020. It’s a commitment to “a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.” (If this doesn’t strike you as faintly ridiculous, you’ve been spending too much time at the UN.) David, by the way, told me he read all the documents to emerge from Durban, explaining: “I was up at 4 o’clock this morning, and had nothing better to do, I guess.”
More interesting than parsing the texts is understanding why two decades of UN climate talks have produced so little progress. David argues that the diplomatic gridlock stems not merely from the unhappy reality that the climate problem is devilishly complicated and hard to solve–both true–but because the UN setting, the number of governments at the table and even the goal of the negotiations — currently, to set targets on emissions that would limit global warming to two degrees C — are all misguided.
“A process that involves every country on the planet focused on legally binding agreements in some ways brings out the worst in everybody,” David says. Poor countries like China and India, in particular, are understandably reluctant to pledge to limit their greenhouse gas emissions as they struggle mightily to bring hundreds of millions of their citizens out of poverty.
“Universal treaties are a very bad way to get started on serious emission controls,” David writes. Better, he argues, for smaller groups of countries to form “clubs” and negotiate flexible, evolving agreements that work more like trade deals. India and the U.S., for example, might work together on ways to burn coal more cleanly, or Russia might be encouraged by Europe to sell more natural gas to China as a substitute for coal.
What’s more, David argues, negotiations that focus on setting targets for emissions are unlikely to succeed, if only because the levels of emissions reflect forces — economic growth, fuel costs, technology breakthroughs (or their absence) — over which governments have limited control.
Instead of agreeing to numerical emissions targets, governments could pledge to adopt “greener” policies. They could, for example, set efficiency standards for buildings or cars, or impose a carbon tax.“Especially when it comes to countries that are growing rapidly, it’s much easier for them to make promises about policies and measures than about emissions outputs,” David says.
Reading Global Warming Gridlock makes the difficulties ahead depressingly clear, for many reasons. Once emitted, CO2 persists in the atmosphere for decades. Replacing fossil fuels with clean energy will take decades and cost many billlions of dollars. Countries will have to absorb costs now (for cleaner energy) to generate benefits that are abstract, uncertain and in the future. This, of course, is precisely the opposite of what governments like to do, which is deliver benefits now and pay later.
These are some of the reasons why David says: “Even a serious effort to control emissions is unlikely to stop global warming. The climate’s going to change.” The question is, how fast and by how much?
I see two takeaways here for business. First, those companies that worry about climate change need to bring their voices more forcefully to the policy arena; they can’t assume that governments are on the right track. Second, companies ought to prepare for climate change–when they site new facilities, for example–because it’s unavoidable.
Perhaps in a future blog post, I’ll explore David’s provocative ideas about bracing for climate change, including the need for adaptation and the prospect of geoengineering. In the meantime, know this: Durban and the UN process aren’t getting us where we need to go. No way, no how.