Obama must atone for his carbon omissions

The US President's promise of energy security feels hollow in light of a lack of action on global warming. In his second term words simply won't be enough.

FT.com

With its references to raging storms, icy currents and gathering clouds, the weather featured heavily in Barack Obama’s first inaugural address. He even promised to do something about it – “to roll back the spectre of global warming.” And he tried.

Of his three big first-term reforms, including healthcare and Wall Street, only cap-and-trade failed. It still damaged his party in the mid-term elections. Realists say it would be suicidal to try it again. But inaugurations are meant to lift our gaze to the horizons. Overhauling immigration and curbing gun violence are worthy goals. But neither compares to the health of the planet.

Obama has in fact been “thinking long and hard about climate change” since the election, according to a senior administration official. Most of his advisers are counselling modesty. Here are three reasons why the US president should risk vituperation – and even ridicule – by aiming high.

First, kids will lie down with leopards before Washington turns bipartisan again. No matter what Obama does – whether it is a plan to subsidise hula hoops or a long walk in the woods with Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei – he will be opposed by a majority of Republicans. He should risk his capital on something game changing.

Second, the reality of global warming is starker today than four years ago – in most respects, alarmingly so. The last report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came out in 2007. Subsequent temperature rises, the speed of the retreat of summer Arctic ice coverage and the increase in extreme weather events makes clear that its forecasts were conservative rather than alarmist. In spite of La Niña, the weather phenomenon that cools temperatures in the Pacific, 12 of the 14 hottest years on record since 1880 have been in this century. Each of the past 36 years has exceeded the 20th century average.

Moreover, the link in the US public’s mind between global warming and harsh weather events, such as the record drought last summer that devastated crops in the Midwest and south, is now firmly established. It is a part of everyday conversation.

Even ExxonMobil, the energy company that used to spend lavish sums on rubbishing global warming, now concedes it is both happening and man-made. The pool of climate change deniers has shrunk faster than the polar caps.

Third, the politics of carbon pricing is not as lunatic as it sounds. In contrast to cap-and-trade, which requires a large regulatory bureaucracy that would always be prone to manipulation, the carbon tax reflects conservative principles. A simple levy on emissions would ensure that the polluter pays rather than dumping costs on the taxpayer. It would rely on the wisdom of markets, rather than industrial policy. And it would be an efficient way to switch the burden from consumption to investment. In theory, conservatives should approve.

It would also be the fiscally conservative thing to do. The clean-up costs for last year’s superstorm Sandy come to $60 billion, which is the same as the entire annual revenues Obama secured last month by raising tax rates on the wealthiest Americans. In practice, many Republicans would accuse him of threatening the American way of life.

“All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell,” said Paul Broun, Republican chair of two House of Representatives science subcommittees, last year. But in the context of a larger fiscal bargain that reduced corporate taxes, moderate Republicans might be persuaded to make the trade-off.

It was George H.W. Bush, a Republican president, who 20 years ago helped launch the global process in Rio that led to the 1997 Kyoto global warming protocol. Today that process is, in effect, moribund – Obama did not even attend the 20th anniversary of the Rio meeting in Mexico last summer (few leaders bothered).

Far more people than in 1992 accept global warming is happening. Something else is holding their leaders back – a deep sense of fatalism that politics will never permit real action. In some cases, particularly in the US, there is also faith that new technology will come to the rescue before the temperature rises turn catastrophic, as the IPCC models now forecast they will.

There is also complacency. US emissions have fallen by almost one-fifth since 2007 because of the recession and the switch from coal to shale gas. This is certainly real – and there is more shale gas to come. But these are pyrrhic reductions.

The US is now starting to export its surplus coal. And global warming is accelerating: China and other developing countries are together pumping out more emissions every few months than four years’ worth of US reductions. The president’s promise of “energy independence” offers a chimera wrapped up in a false sense of security. If it comes as a substitute for action on global warming, he will be judged harshly by history. We are living in the Obama era not the House Republican era.

It is, of course, easy to be flippant from the sidelines. Some readers’ blood pressure will rise simply as a result of reading this column. One can only wonder at how they would respond to a genuine White House initiative. But, to paraphrase an old saying, all that is required for global warming to turn catastrophic is for good men to do nothing. Everybody should hope that Obama is planning something significant.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.