So… what’s Plan B? An Obama official explains

The most recent round of global climate change talks were always predicated on the assumption, however optimistic, that the U.S. Congress would somehow manage to get a serious law limiting carbon emissions onto the books. In December, President Barack Obama told leaders gathered in Copenhagen that the United States would reduce its emissions of heat-trapping ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The most recent round of global climate change talks were always predicated on the assumption, however optimistic, that the U.S. Congress would somehow manage to get a serious law limiting carbon emissions onto the books. In December, President Barack Obama told leaders gathered in Copenhagen that the United States would reduce its emissions of heat-trapping gases 17 percent by 2020, and more than 80 percent by 2050. But yesterday's collapse of the congressional Democrats' proposed energy bill scuttled the idea of binding legislation to this end. So what's the fallback plan?

For the optimists, there's the outside chance that the energy industry will come around out of fear of the historical inevitability of some sort of action. As Coral Davenport writes in Politico, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a reliable ally of King Coal, has alerted the industry that times are changing under its feet, and that it's better to get to the negotiating table before being forcibly marginalized. After all, even China is establishing a carbon-trading system, according to China Daily (though there's no word of a carbon cap). Meanwhile, a United Nations committee is considering ways to extend the 1997 Kyoto Protocols to provide leading industrial countries another chance to reach agreement. The Obama administration can also use the executive branch's regulatory authority to force emissions reductions, but that's always dicey, since the next president can change the same regulations with the stroke of a pen.

For a read on how the White House will respond to yesterday's setback -- and on whether there even is an official Plan B -- I emailed a senior Administration official, who replied on condition of anonymity. This official's response after the jump:

The most recent round of global climate change talks were always predicated on the assumption, however optimistic, that the U.S. Congress would somehow manage to get a serious law limiting carbon emissions onto the books. In December, President Barack Obama told leaders gathered in Copenhagen that the United States would reduce its emissions of heat-trapping gases 17 percent by 2020, and more than 80 percent by 2050. But yesterday’s collapse of the congressional Democrats’ proposed energy bill scuttled the idea of binding legislation to this end. So what’s the fallback plan?

For the optimists, there’s the outside chance that the energy industry will come around out of fear of the historical inevitability of some sort of action. As Coral Davenport writes in Politico, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a reliable ally of King Coal, has alerted the industry that times are changing under its feet, and that it’s better to get to the negotiating table before being forcibly marginalized. After all, even China is establishing a carbon-trading system, according to China Daily (though there’s no word of a carbon cap). Meanwhile, a United Nations committee is considering ways to extend the 1997 Kyoto Protocols to provide leading industrial countries another chance to reach agreement. The Obama administration can also use the executive branch’s regulatory authority to force emissions reductions, but that’s always dicey, since the next president can change the same regulations with the stroke of a pen.

For a read on how the White House will respond to yesterday’s setback — and on whether there even is an official Plan B — I emailed a senior Administration official, who replied on condition of anonymity. This official’s response after the jump:

– First, the President has announced his intended medium-term target, as well as a 2050 target. Those are guideposts for the U.S. negotiators as they try to tap-dance their way toward something that we could ultimately sign onto. They are also the kinds of goals that will help guide EPA as it proceeds on the regulatory track under the CAA endangerment finding.

– Second, since the lead-up to Copenhagen, the U.S. has been clear that we won’t bring home a binding treaty deal in advance of binding domestic legislation (or some other reason to believe that the treaty could garner the needed support in the Senate). So we are already inhabiting the zone of "Plan B."

– Third, some countries, already angered by the (as they see it) paltry results from Copenhagen, will try to forge ahead without the U.S.; that will be a vain exercise, but they are peeved and will try to find levers to pull to pressure the US to move ahead in advance of the Congress.

– Fourth, over time (but evidently not before the end of the current Congress), three facilitating factors will affect the domestic politics of this issue:

  • the science will gain further corroboration;
  • industry will tire of living in never-never land without the market predictability that is a necessity for one to make long-term investment plans;
  • and people will realize more and more of the upside and the practicability of climate change mitigation (which was the point of the Clean Energy Ministerial: "Look how much we can do and are prepared to do even now to advance the clean energy agenda.").
<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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