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Heat is on America

Updated on Sep 02, 2008 – SCMP

As the Democrats and Republicans rally round their candidates for the US presidency, it’s a good time to ask what we can expect the winner and his administration to do about climate change. Will the next president continue George W. Bush’s policy of trying to kill the international climate regime, or will he take this crucial problem more seriously?

One thing seems clear: starting next year, the US is unlikely to continue opposing efforts to devise policies that will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While we can expect Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress to join forces in promoting regulations that limit greenhouse gas pollution, even under John McCain things will change; he has expressed concerns about climate change for some years.

Under the next US president, policies on climate change will be driven by pressures building inside and outside Washington. Indeed, most action in the US to limit greenhouse gas emissions has occurred at the grass roots. The US public is expressing growing concern about climate change. A June poll found that 62 per cent of American adults believe the next president should take “strong action to address climate change soon after taking office”. This change in public opinion is reflected in consumer behaviour. The price of petrol has pushed many more consumers towards fuel-efficient and less-polluting cars, demonstrating the potential of climate-motivated petrol taxes to shape public behaviour.

In recent years, a growing number of US states have passed laws and adopted climate-change action plans. These measures include carbon-reduction targets, energy-efficiency and renewable-energy standards, and regional cap-and-trade agreements. This action outside Washington is raising the pressure on Congress to respond at the national level, and inevitably will affect how the US behaves in future international climate negotiations.

One thing to expect is for Congress to advocate trade policies and measures that will protect US businesses. This will involve a push for tariffs on imports made by methods more polluting than those in the US – with predictable opposition from free-trade advocates and adversely affected industries. Many of these trade-related measures are implicitly, and often explicitly, focused on Chinese manufacturers, which have long enjoyed subsidised energy and relatively low environmental standards. Alas, it is not the nature of Congress to pass ideal legislation. The first of the new climate-related trade laws is likely to be messy, have unpredicted outcomes and favour politically influential industries.

Trade measures being considered by Congress will not be welcomed by some countries, which will challenge them for undermining free-trade agreements. But if vocal opposition comes from China, already perceived in Washington as trading unfairly, resolve in Congress to protect US industries might be reinforced.

Alternatively, collective opposition from major developed economies, if led by the European Union and combined with evidence of harm to American businesses and consumers, could blunt major climate-related tariffs.

If too few countries are willing to join in substantially limiting greenhouse gases, it is possible that the US government could focus on protecting entrenched industrial interests and mustering support among countries opposed to robust cuts. In this respect, the US and China could become allies.

It is possible the next US president will seek to muster global support for the kind of greenhouse gas cuts being implemented in Europe. The US has the rare ability to use economic incentives to bring more countries into a much stronger climate agreement.

It is now undeniable that US policymakers at all levels, and the American people themselves, are catching up with climate science. We may soon view the Bush years as a temporary, if painful, pause in US international environmental leadership.

Paul G. Harris is director of the Environmental Studies Programme, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies, and a professor of political science at Lingnan University, Hong Kong

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