by Tom Switzer
ON the ABC1's 7.30 Report last week, Barack Obama reiterated his belief that putting a price on carbon was the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However sweet the rhetoric about combating global warming, the cold reality is this: comprehensive climate legislation, which US senators will unveil next week, is unlikely to pass into law this year. Here are five reasons why.
PUBLIC OPINION: In the wake of climate-gate, glacier-gate and the recent record-breaking snow storms, polls show rising scepticism of the science of man-made global warming. A Harris poll last year found that only 51 per cent of Americans believe the Earth is getting warmer - down from 71 per cent two years ago. And according to a January Pew Survey, climate change is ranked dead last in a list of policy priorities; only 28 per cent think reducing carbon emissions is a top priority.
THE ECONOMY: The American people, not to mention nervous politicians up for re-election, are always wary of new taxes, especially when unemployment remains at 9.7 per cent. Outgoing Democrat Senator Evan Bayh spoke for many colleagues when he recently said: "We need to deal with the phenomena of global warming, but I think it is very difficult in the economic circumstances we have right now." In this environment, it is politically dangerous for, say, a Democrat politician facing re-election in a Rust Belt state to tell constituents they should pay higher taxes to help China become more energy efficient and more economically competitive.
GEOGRAPHY: In Washington, climate politics is just as much about geography as partisanship: where a majority of voters in the Pacific coast and the Northeast are green, people in other regions are brown. To secure passage of climate legislation, Obama has to win over not only a few Republican but also several "blue dog" Democrat senators from the South as well as "brown dog" Democrats from the Midwest and Great Plains, whose states are heavily dependent on oil, coal and manufacturing. And that is before the substantially amended legislation requires a stamp of approval from the House of Representatives which only narrowly passed an even less pork-ridden Bill last June.
OFF-SHORE DRILLING: To appeal to sceptics on the Right, Obama supports plans to expand nuclear power generation and off-shore drilling. Although conservatives are largely in favour of ending the drilling ban, many Republicans warn that the President's proposal is too modest. Besides, environmental groups and liberal Democrats, especially from oceanside states, are strongly opposed to off-shore drilling. So Obama's overture could very well be counterproductive: he could fail to win over unconverted Republicans even as he drives away erstwhile supporters.
INTERNATIONAL CLIMATE: It is difficult for US politicians to sell the imperative of pricing carbon at home when the rest of the world is suffering global-warming fatigue. Copenhagen failed to secure any kind of legally binding, verifiable and enforceable global climate deal. And with China and India chugging along the smoky path to prosperity, the chances of a post-Kyoto agreement at Mexico City are small.
Beijing and Delhi insist they will not join the West in what they see as an economic suicide pact. In France, the Sarkozy government recently jettisoned the idea of a carbon tax. In Canada, the emissions trading scheme is stalled in legislative limbo. And in Australia, public confidence in what Tony Abbott calls Labor's "big new tax" has collapsed.
These factors explain why comprehensive US climate legislation is unlikely to pass this year. And with Republicans set to gain seats in both the House and Senate in November's mid-term elections, any serious climate and energy Bill is even less likely to become US law in the next few years.
The political climate is changing so dramatically that even Obama's Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently said: "I think the term `cap and trade' (or emissions trading) is not in the lexicon any more." Al Gore's moment has come and gone.
Tom Switzer is a research associate at Sydney University's United States Studies Centre and the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne.