Novas mensagens, análises etc. irão se concentrar a partir de agora em interceptor.
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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Climate Change: The Consequences of Waning Interest

July 12, 2007 20 04 GMT
By Bart Mongoven

Live Earth, a global series of concerts intended to raise awareness of climate change issues, has come and gone and probably soon will be forgotten. Attendance at the venues was satisfactory and television ratings were low, but not unexpectedly so. Live Earth had the potential to serve an important role in the re-emergence of grassroots concern in the United States with climate change, but it appears to have failed in that task. That project remains undone, and those fighting for the passage of significant climate change legislation in the United States in 2007 are beginning to face the consequences of waning public interest in the climate issue. They are also facing the lack of a coherent grassroots movement in support of action on climate change.
The move toward legislation in the United States addressing climate change is nearing a decisive moment. Though public concern remains far higher than it was a year earlier, the emotion driving the issue has dissipated much more quickly than it rose. Still, while climate change has emerged as a top-tier issue, the public's focus is back to the issues that dominated in 2006: immigration, health care and the war.
As a result of the momentum that had built up, politicians in Washington nonetheless find themselves dealing with the specifics of altering energy policy -- something that affects almost every industrial sector and every aspect of life in the United States. The impatient rhetoric that "we must do something now" has met the Gordian knot that is America's energy system. Complexity has won, and decision-making has slowed.
In the larger picture, the politics surrounding climate change in the coming months and years will run on two parallel tracks. One set of debates will focus in the near term on a political resolution of the current climate change policy, and another set of debates will focus on how people live their lives and conceive of their relationship to major environmental issues. The second track, driven by advocacy of sustainable consumption, is more important. It will determine the long-term future of energy and global energy policy, but the first is important, too, as it will set the ground rules for the policies that follow in the coming decades.
Among the most important ground rules will be two issues that arise out of the federal government's desire to soften the economic impact of emissions cuts. The first will be the rules governing emissions trading, beginning with a discussion of carbon credit auctions versus free allocations. The second will be the issue of "safety valves" and "off-ramps" in the emissions reduction targets. Both issues are terribly important to the companies, activists and other interest groups intensely involved in the climate issue. For the rest of the public, even a basic description of these topics risks putting the reader to sleep (something that will be tested later in this piece).
Because these technical issues lack the emotional punch of drowning polar bears, and because public pressure is not at a particularly high level, the coming debate over these issues will provide important insights into the degree to which policymakers themselves have embraced climate change as an issue. It also will show the degree to which they see climate change as having become embedded in voters' minds as a key issue. Finally, it will show the limitations facing climate change activists if political support remains tepid in the absence of a strong grassroots movement. Through these two issues we will soon have a valuable barometer of how far the issue of climate change has come.
Flagging interest?
The U.S. public's interest in and concern about climate change is dramatically higher than it was a year ago. According to polling data, in July 2006, 13 percent of Americans were very concerned about climate change and 51 thought that immediate action was necessary to change energy policy. Public attention increased dramatically at the end of 2006 and through the winter of 2007. By April, the peak of public concern, the issue of climate change was on the cover of Time magazine and featured in almost three times more news stories in the United States than a year earlier. Polls showed that 29 percent viewed climate change as the nation's highest-priority issue (by comparison, 34 percent thought health care was first), and 60 percent felt that immediate action was required. Congress saw these polls and began to act.

Since April, however, the issue has cooled, albeit at a higher plateau than a year earlier. This is because unlike the war or health care, climate change does not lend itself to a continual thread of news stories that the public can see and react to. Continuing carnage in Iraq fuels the anti-war movement. Every week offers a horror story about the U.S. health care system, and people interact with the health care system in their daily lives. Climate change is remote, coming to the forefront only occasionally, such as in the aftermath of hurricanes. Polls now show climate change is a top priority for less than 15 percent of the public and less than 55 think that immediate attention is necessary.
To remain on the front burner, a static issue needs clear leadership and a platform. Immigration, for instance, has the same disadvantages as climate change, but particularly through the leadership of CNN host Lou Dobbs, it remains at the forefront of the political debate. Dobbs continually develops stories about immigration and provides a single strategic focal point for immigration activists to track. While he is by no means the only voice on immigration, it is difficult to imagine such a static issue remaining a high public priority for so long without his leadership.
The Politics
When the Democratic Party took power in Congress in January, it made climate and energy a top priority. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised to replace the glacial pace of operations in the previous Congress with a new, active gait. Among other things, she promised to pass a comprehensive climate policy by July 4. Within weeks, this was replaced with the goal of taking action toward a comprehensive policy by July 4. By May, the goal became passing a bill (pretty much any bill) addressing climate by Independence Day, and by July 4 a modest (but nonetheless very important) energy bill had passed the Senate but not the House.
The lack of decisive action on Capitol Hill coincides with a stall in the broader public's concern for and attention to the issue. In effect, the balance of a year ago is beginning to flip. Whereas in 2006 the public appeared ahead of federal policymakers, Congress is now shoulder-deep in energy policy while the public's interest in what Congress is up to is waning. This is not good news for Congress, especially the Democrats, as this means that the cost of action (action that necessarily will harm large interest groups) remains high, but the rewards -- in the form of public approval -- appear to be getting smaller.
Congress' reflexive response to this situation will be to strike a modest deal as soon as possible. If the public's concern about the issue continues to wane, the majority in both branches will likely see safety in voting for a minimal policy that addresses the chief issues raised by climate change but that does little harm to industry groups and other special interests. In voting for it, representatives and senators can go to their home districts having voted to solve the climate issue. For the congressional leadership, a swift vote has many advantages: It takes a difficult issue off the table and allows Congress to demonstrate leadership while putting U.S. President George W. Bush in a difficult political position.
The Necessity of the Grass Roots
All of this was predictable. For those trying to win the most ambitious global emission reduction plans, the current direction in Congress is a disaster. It was obvious months ago that momentum would stall over the summer.
For those pressing for emissions reductions, Live Earth was only a small part of the strategy, and it was organized independent of most U.S.-based climate change advocacy groups. Proponents of emissions reduction regulations have a number of other events and campaigns planned for the coming weeks. For instance, within a month, former Vice President Al Gore will re-emerge as the public spokesman for emissions reductions, though it will take some time for his influence to ramp up. August also will see the reappearance of Step It Up, a grassroots campaign dedicated to creating a U.S.-wide student movement on climate change.
Climate activists' push for an active grassroots effort is driven by the fear that Congress thinks it can get by with minimal action on climate. The activists specifically fear the public will see Congress pass modest climate and energy legislation and conclude Washington has resolved the issue. Environmentalists may howl in protest, but the public (and media) fully expects environmentalists to complain regardless of what passes. Environmentalist complaints -- valid or not -- will fall on deaf ears.
To combat Congress' attempt to get by with minimal action on the climate, an independent climate change movement not led by environmentalists but by someone with stature who enjoys credibility with the public is needed. While the public largely does not trust environmentalists, it is likely at least to listen to a recognized public figure who appears dedicated to finding pragmatic political solutions for the climate issue. In effect, climate activists hope that if the leadership of the climate movement -- distinct from the environmental movement -- says a bill does not go far enough, the public will not consider the climate issue a closed case. The suit is tailored to fit the former vice president -- and he is likely to put it on, but not for some months yet.
Allocations and Circuit Breakers
The debate over allocations of carbon credits and "off-ramps," also known as "circuit breakers," will test this. In both cases, Congress will face a terribly complex (mind-numbing to some) debate between activists and certain industry groups. While neither issue will come for a decisive vote in the coming months, both are central to bills that have been recently introduced or that will be introduced soon, so these issues will be at the center of climate discussions in the coming weeks and months.
Both issues are connected to the emissions-trading system envisioned in most climate bills. The core of emissions trading is that companies must have a permit to emit a certain amount of a pollutant (in this case carbon dioxide). These emission credits can be bought and sold in a market, which means a credit holder can sell excess credits to a company emitting in excess of its allocation. As long as the total amount of credits is capped, the national emission level will be capped.
How facilities match up their credits and their emissions is up to each company. A company can become more efficient and sell extra credits, or keep the credits and increase production. Another company can continue with business as usual and simply buy credits on the open market. The effect of the cap-and-trade system in climate change is to create a price for carbon. As the national cap is lowered (to, say 1990 levels from today's levels) the theory holds that the price of carbon will increase. More carbon polluting companies will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage against competitors whose operations are cleaner, because more polluting firms will have to buy credits on the market, credits their competitors may be selling.
The allocation debate focuses on whether the initial emissions credits should be sold at auction or whether each company should be allocated credits based on their emissions in a specific year. Most in business prefer the latter, an initial free allocation. Companies that have significantly cut their emissions in recent years would be given carbon credits they could sell immediately. Companies that have not cut emissions would only have to begin buying emissions once the system is in place. Not all in industry support a free allocation -- especially those who have made dramatic progress over the past 10 to 15 years, because a free allocation probably would not give credit for long-term cuts. These companies are joined in opposition to free allocation by environmentalists, who see the system as giving an advantage to those companies that have done the least in the past few years to cut emissions. Environmentalists thus prefer that initial carbon allocations be auctioned.
The other major debate coming soon will address the question of whether the cap-and-trade system should include mechanisms that would stop the cap from falling so fast that the economy suffers severe harm. Supporters of off-ramps, aka circuit breakers, argue that if technology does not come up with new efficiencies as quickly as lawmakers hope, carbon could become so expensive that industrial activity could be shut down by climate regulations. To stop this from happening, proposals such as the one offered by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., offer to halt the cap's fall if the price of carbon reaches a level that endangers the economy. Opponents of circuit breakers argue they would create disincentives for companies to develop new efficiencies and would also reduce the windfall for those who develop the most important and lasting solutions to energy generation and efficiency questions.
Both of these issues are highly technical, too arcane and complicated for the general public to be expected to have strong feelings about either way. For those in Congress, the easiest political position is the one that would ease the burden of compliance. Thus, a bill that cuts emissions and changes energy policy dramatically still will pass, but it will not be as onerous for business.
The strength of the current grassroots movement will be apparent in how many in Congress go against the easy route, either because they firmly believe emissions cuts must be as pure and unclouded as possible or (more likely) because they fear angering voters concerned about climate change. While the effect of the grassroots campaigns could kick in by the end of the year, they seem unlikely to have much impact for the rest of 2007.
The intervening period presents a unique opportunity to observe how much pull the climate movement now has, before it is unified and organized around a clear leadership and goals. We expect it is fairly small, and that the debates over circuit breakers and allocations will not favor environmentalists in the coming weeks. If on the off chance Congress is prepared to take the hard road in 2007, industry will have a strong signal to fight quickly for whatever it can get -- because when the movement starts back up, winning concessions will be next to impossible.

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