Major development in US climate debate

21 November 2008

The Climate Group's Michael Allegretti and Evan Juska consider the impact of a new pro-environment Energy & Commerce committee in the US

On 20 November 2008, the Democratic Caucus of the US House of Representatives voted to replace John Dingell (D-MI) with Henry Waxman (D-CA) as Chairman of the Energy & Commerce Committee - the committee responsible for developing the US response to climate change

Like Barack Obama's election, this development represents a fundamental shift in the way the US will address global warming. However, unlike Obama's election, whether or not this will ultimately be a positive development remains to be seen.

Waxman's decision to challenge Dingell for chairmanship of the powerful committee was largely motivated by fundamental differences between the two men on the design of a US cap-and-trade program. Waxman, a long-time ally of the environmental community, favors stringent short-term emissions reduction targets, auctioning emissions allowances, and very limited cost-containment mechanisms, such as offsets. Dingell, a long-time ally of the automobile industry, favors more lenient short-term targets and a certain amount of emissions allowances given for free to regulated companies to help them adjust to the increased cost of doing business that will result from climate policy in the near term.

Because a US cap-and-trade program needs to pass the draft bill outlining a cap-and-trade program that was intended to serve as the starting point for debate in the next Congress. With Waxman at the helm, the climate change debate will now likely start from his more progressive platform.

The question is: what does this mean for the US response to climate change in 2009?

Environmentalists may view this development as exactly what is needed to quicken the pace and strengthen the ambition of the US commitment to reduce its emissions, bringing it in line with what the international community expects, and thus, strengthening the prospects for an international agreement in Copenhagen next year. But whether or not this change is ultimately a good thing for US climate policy will depend largely on Waxman's ability to secure the votes needed for the bill to pass through Congress.

And, the problem with previous Congressional cap-and-trade proposals has not been a lack of support from progressive elements, but instead, a lack of support from conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans, many who hail from the Midwest and South. Lawmakers from these regions have real concerns about what a price on carbon will mean for their struggling economies, which are built upon the manufacturing, energy and agriculture industries.

Waxman will need to reach common ground with this group of lawmakers to be successful. Now, more than ever, there is an important role for progressive business and government leaders to help bring the two sides together and ensure that Waxman's ambitious vision can develop into a US commitment and can serve as a starting point for negotiations next year in Copenhagen.

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