This post is by Michael Williams, Senior Legislative and Policy Advocate for the BlueGreen Alliance, reporting from Doha, Qatar, where the United Nations climate change negotiations are underway.
The "ambition gap” is a frequent driver of discussions at international climate negotiations, and nothing is different here in Doha. Rightfully so (I wrote about it yesterday). There is the amount of mitigation currently planned by countries around the world (including the U.S.), and then there is the amount of mitigation the world needs to do in order to achieve the 2-degree goal agreed upon in Durban last year.
Let’s just say that the U.S. has long been among the leaders in ambition gap. (Not really what we want to be leading on, though that is slowly – too slowly – changing.) The calls for the U.S. to take stronger action are persistent, and come from geographically, politically, and economically diverse nations.
Within the U.S., we have our own gap: a political gap. It has three parts, not two. (I guess that could make it a triangle. But I'm going to stick with a gap, and ask that you envision three points on a straight line.) Our negotiators have to deal with: 1) How much mitigation we are able to do politically; 2) What we can actually do economically; and 3) What we should do responsibly and morally.
Political ability can be described as what Congress can actually do (try not to think about that or you might fall into a deep depression) and what the Executive Branch can do (utilizing the Clean Air Act is the first thing to spring to mind). Both Congress and President Obama are limited by the many drivers of any political decision, whether electoral politics, congressional relationships, constituent interests, interest groups, public pressure, economic effects, or policy priorities.
Economic ability is what our industry can achieve without suffering large disruption. There is a great – large, not high quality – debate on this issue, and there are many in the U.S. who are dishonest about what our industry can successfully achieve. Those many include the folks who claimed that the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments would result in massive GDP and job loss (the opposite happened). That said, there are significant concerns on structuring our mitigation efforts correctly so that we avoid job loss and actually encourage job gain. At BGA, we fully believe that a properly structured mitigation effort can result in job gains (and we mean a serious mitigation effort, as was developed by Reps. Waxman and Markey in the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which would lock in the short- and long-term reductions the U.S. pledged in Copenhagen).
And finally, our responsibility is what we must do in order to keep temperatures to no more than 2 degrees above per-industrial levels. More ambitious cuts are preferable, but this is the least we must do. Science dictates our responsibility globally, but how much is specifically on the U.S. leads to a deep debate on equity (again, see my blog from yesterday).
The three points of our political gap are not stationary. At different times, one point may move towards or away from another, and there are varying viewpoints about the distance between each point. Achieving meaningful action will require these three points all converging.
I don't mean this post to make excuses or as an explicit critique of the U.S.'s efforts in the negotiations. Rather, I think that when we clarify scope of U.S. decision making, we realize the importance of political leadership. Because when we move our political ability forward positively, it makes us truthfully address our economic reality. I truly believe that when this happens we can arrive at a result that will meet our responsibility.
President Obama has pushed us forward with vital steps on fuel economy standards and clean energy investments. We have a number of champions in Congress who have fought hard, and they came close in 2009 and 2010 to actually achieving a comprehensive and sweeping climate policy.
Now we need President Obama and our champions in Congress to push for more. We won't succeed without that.
To hammer this point home, my colleagues from the Union of Concerned Scientists, AFL-CIO, Business Council for Sustainable Energy, Oxfam and SustainUs held a press conference today at 10:00am EST. BGA is proud to stand with them in this call to action. You can watch the webcast here.