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Governing the Climate: Lessons from the National Conference on Climate Governance

January 12, 2009 // 12:30pm2:30pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Environmental Change and Security Program
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The election of Barack Obama offers new hope that the United States will take the urgent action necessary to address the looming threat posed by global warming. Yet, successfully addressing this challenge will require serious deliberation of governance options. On Monday, January 12, 2009, the Canada Institute and Environmental Change and Security Program, in collaboration with the Stockholm Environment Institute, hosted a panel discussion on North American climate governance. The panel featured five leading climate change scholars whose work was recently featured at the National Conference on Climate Governance at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

Evaluating Congressional Capacity to Address Climate Change

Though more than 200 Congressional hearings were held to discuss climate change in 2007 and 2008, little action has been initiated to actually address the issue at the federal level, said Barry Rabe of the University of Michigan. Shifting from discussion to action will not be without significant challenges. Rabe noted that the 111th Congress already faces a packed agenda that will limit its ability to devote time to climate change. He also questioned Congress' analytical ability to make wise policy decisions on complex science and energy issues that will be critical to address climate change since Congress' decision to eliminate the Office of Technology Assessment in 1995. He maintained that it remains unclear how effectively Congress can shift from holding hearings to deliberation on the issue, noting that the recently created Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change has limited ability to create legislation. Rabe stressed that moving forward on climate change will not only require constructive Congressional engagement with the executive branch, but should also devise a strategy to engage and draw on best practices already established at the sub-national level.

Another significant factor that will drive and influence Congressional action on climate change is American public opinion of the issue. According to research conducted by Christopher Borick of Muhlenberg College's Institute of Public Opinion, a majority of Americans now believe that global warming is taking place and consider it a "very serious" problem. Borick's research also found that Republicans represented the demographic with the highest percentage of those who do not believe in global warming and do not feel the issue requires immediate government action to address. On the subject of governing climate change, Borick noted that a majority of Americans believe addressing climate change is the responsibility of federal, state, and local officials. In addition, contrary to the commonly held view that reducing carbon emissions will negatively affect the economy, Borick's findings found that close to 80 percent of Americans believe state governments may boost their economies by requiring greater use of renewable energy.

Finding the Right Policy Tools

Of the policy options available to address climate change, Borick's research found that the creation of renewable portfolio standards proved to be the most popular option among Americans, while the implementation of increased gasoline taxes proved to be the least popular, receiving support from only 10 percent of those polled. Although the establishment of a national cap and trade system has received support in Congress and the private sector, only 25 percent of Americans strongly support the idea, noted Borick.

A lack of public support is not the only barrier to implementing a cap and trade system. Leigh Raymond of the Purdue Climate Change Research Center argued that serious deliberation needs to be conducted on how a national system would handle carbon offsets and the allocation of carbon credits.
Raymond said that one notable feature of emerging sub-national cap and trade systems in the United States is that the vast majority of carbon credits are allocated via auction. According to Raymond, this marks a normative shift toward the attitude that the atmosphere is a public resource that companies can no longer exploit by releasing their emissions into the air without financial consequences. A major related policy issue yet to be determined, said Raymond, is whether the revenue generated through the auction of carbon credits should be redistributed back to the public or treated as tax dollars to be spent by the government.

Global and Continental Climate Governance

Anger and frustration over U.S. inaction on climate change is widely known and shared throughout the international community, said Stacy VanDeveer of the University of New Hampshire. Nevertheless, the international community remains hopeful that progress can be made on climate change under the leadership of newly elected president Barack Obama. Nevertheless, major challenges face the United States in its attempt to reengage the world on global warming. For instance, noted VanDeveer, the United States was the only Annex 1 country not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, meaning the majority of developed countries have had a ten-year head start on creating policies and institutions designed to address climate change. Thus, while the European Union has been working toward achieving an emissions reduction target by 2020 for years and may push other developed nations to follow-suit in upcoming international climate negotiations, the United States' slow start to address climate change will make it far more difficult to meet a specific target by that date.

Given a continental approach to addressing climate change made sense for the European Union, said VanDeveer, the United States should consider whether to include Canada and Mexico in its plans to move forward on the issue. Common environmental policies among NAFTA members may prove particularly prudent considering the integrated nature of the North American economy. Rabe echoed VanDeveer's call for a continental approach to climate change, noting a North American solution to the issue would require a high level of collaboration and information sharing between the three countries, as well as a willingness to share green technology.

Drafted by Ken Crist.

 
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