Climate change moves and countermoves

In the wake of various events over the last few months, players on all sides of the legislative and political battlefield are attempting to move the debate their way. The Massachusetts election, the failure of the Copenhagen Conference to reach a binding treaty to curb global warming, the continuing difficulties that Democrats are having getting any major legislation through the Senate, all have altered the debate somewhat.

Some of the efforts by conservatives are mainly for the benefit of their own choir, while others are serious attempts to prevent any action by Congress or the president. Some efforts by Democrats and Obama are positive steps to push through meaningful change or reach reasonable compromise, while others back away from a forthright environmental position.

Conservatives are seizing on a typo in the last International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which mistakenly appeared to predict the disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers by 2035, instead of the intended 2350! The conservatives and climate change deniers are trying to make this into a major scandal that refutes the entire scientific consensus about human-caused global climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions. This, like the earlier "scandal" about some e-mails from a climate change scientist which in these folks' fevered imaginations seemed to imply an effort to exaggerate the data, is a tempest in a teapot, a minor glitch almost everyone will forget about soon.

Another piece of news the deniers will no doubt trumpet as refuting human-caused global warming is the reevaluation of the role of water vapor in climate change. One major study recently concluded that water vapor might account for as much as one-third of global warming. In other words, the conclusion of this study was that greenhouse gas emissions account for two-thirds of global warming, still hugely significant. However, this will be portrayed as "proving" that humans aren't causing global warming, so we should just shut up and adjust, and especially shut up about limiting greenhouse gas emissions and limiting the profits of energy companies.

Meanwhile, all indications are that global warming is speeding up, with potential dire consequences for the entire human race. It is getting harder to ignore the mounting evidence, so conservatives are shouting even louder in an attempt to drown out that evidence.

Obama, in his State of the Union speech, again pushed the Senate to pass a version of the energy/climate change bill already passed by the House. The Environmental Protection Agency is taking steps to plan the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions, if Congress doesn't act, which ups the pressure on Congress, and on the Democrats from coal-producing states who oppose carbon dioxide regulation.

As a result, Lisa Murkowski, Republican senator from Alaska, has introduced legislation to prevent the EPA from regulating carbon emissions. While this bill has little chance of passing either the Senate or the House, it is part of the conservative effort to make this a politically more volatile issue, to put the White House on the defensive.

Obama, in his State of the Union speech, also upped his rhetoric supporting the rapid development of more nuclear power, and again expressed support for the idea of "clean coal," which may be an attempt to win enough conservative and Blue Dog support for an energy/climate change bill. But these are examples of what used to be called "triangulation" when practiced by Bill Clinton, giving in to some conservative pressures in order to win some legislative victories, even at the cost of diluting those victories significantly.

While there has been an important shift in tone with the Obama administration on climate change issues, the U.S. remains far behind both Europe and China in many areas of environmental and energy policy. China is already producing far more wind turbines to generate electricity using wind power than the U.S. or any other country, putting China on track to meet its goals for production of renewable energy. The European Union has an active carbon trading market (what is referred to in this country as "cap-and-trade") which while deeply flawed is actually functioning and beginning to reduce carbon emissions.

The popular movement for real environmental action, while enjoying majority support in polls, has not yet managed to organize enough of a political force to require Congress to act. We can't count on Obama, the Democrats in Congress, or the renewable energy industry to solve this problem; it demands more concerted organized efforts. For all the discussion of "green jobs," not enough is being done to create green jobs, to shift the production of energy to renewables, to limit greenhouse gas pollution, nor to reach a binding, enforceable international agreement.