Australia’s climate change policy, and in fact much of the worlds policy and ‘appetite’ for action in promotion of solar power, wind power and renewable energy in general is determined by U.S. action/s. While states like South Australia have been successful in pushing for 20 percent renewable energy targets, global action is key.
A set of factors may tip opinion towards strong support for climate action in the United States in the next two years but the shift is still far from inevitable.
The first includes the unprecedented intensity and social, economic and physical impacts of extreme weather in the ‘lower 48 States’. The best recent summary of this is in a report by Congressmen Waxman and Markey (attached), previously the authors of a series of bills to try and get the US to take climate and energy security seriously. It s this immediate experience of wild weather – and the climate-related narrative that is building around it, which has the greatest persuasive power, in particular in the otherwise conservative states of the Mid-West.
The second is the recent experience of a shift to gas in US energy production and use. While gas cannot be a long or even medium term transitional fuel, the fact of the rapid shift is itself an indication that such mobility is possible..
The third is the Arctic. Mann underestimates how powerful the narrative of the Arctic tipping point is, including the combination of the unpredicted speed of its arrival and the iconic losses associated with it. Next will be Greenland – where the changes are both as dramatic and the consequences far more distressing (in terms of the rate of sea rise), which Mann misunderstands and associates with the Arctic melt.
Fourth, in my view, is the impact of the US fiscal crisis. There is no $$ left – in fact the economy is running on less than empty – for any more oil-related military adventures. So American energy policy (for reasons of security) needs to move to shore up domestic capacity… which brings us back to gas but also to alternatives (renewables).
Fifth is the greater likelihood that Obama, reelected, will use his second and last term to cut loose on climate.
And last, the IPCC 5 report – due the year after next – is likely to be even more trenchant about our global trajectory towards climate crisis. US media amplification of this science during times of extreme weather has already been seen to have jolted public opinion in previous times (1988-1990).
So why is the shift far from inevitable? Some points – in no order of preference.
First, the Presidential elections are teetering… Obama, Romney, Obama, then again? Romney and Obama have both been exceptionally weak on climate. Obama may continue to be a conciliator and middle-roader. And Romney is deeply beholden to those sectors and interests with the most to lose in a national policy shift away from fossil fuels.
Second, Congress remains a political swamp, with no end to this in sight. Admittedly progressive climate policy, albeit slow and meek, has continued in parts of the US in certain States – but an effective mobilisation requires national resources, nationally coordinated. The chances of getting strong climate legislation through Congress – even if Romney had a fit of the vapours, is slight.
Third, The US’s fiscal and economic crisis also makes finding the necessary resources for a powerful shift both materially and politically difficult… and we are yet to see what happens when Congress revisits the fiscal abyss later this year. (Economic chaos is never good for long term policy development and implementation…)
Fourth, we have seen several waves of explosive scientific news about climate change simply wash through the US, without effect…. including during the period 2007-2009. Moreover, if the pattern of extremes declines (as seems to have occurred in Australia) then
Last, various volatile features in the international realm may completely divert attention from climate change. Iran is an explosive nightmare… including for US foreign policy. Relations with China continue to be very complicated – they may become synergistic and produce a race to the top in terms of energy efficiency, renewables, etc. Or not.