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America needs a climate of change by Kevin Houston
A few months ago, I might have found it shocking that the two candidates for the US Presidency could manage to get through six hours of live televised debate without a single mention of climate change
From a European perspective, the issue has been conspicuous by its absence from the 2012 campaign. Mitt Romney has managed to ignore the issue altogether, with the exception of his convention speech when he made it the subject of a joke, while Barack Obama has raised it only in the passing and when addressing sympathetic audiences of students and rock-solid Democrat supporters.
Even in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Sandy, which interrupted campaigning for three days last week and highlighted forcefully and graphically America’s present-day vulnerability to climate change, it has been left to elder Democratic statesmen like Bill Clinton and Al Gore to challenge Romney on the issue.
The reluctance of American politicians to engage on the issue was made clearer to me during conversations in Washington with delegates at a conference held jointly by the US Food Marketing Institute (the self-proclaimed “Voice of Food Retail”) and the Grocery Marketing Association which, together, represent an industry worth $600billion and employing 3.4million Americans.
Unsurprisingly, there was no specific debate around climate change programmed at the conference. One of the delegates, a former university professor who now trains teachers on how to talk about the importance of water to American schoolchildren, told me that in some schools, if the phrases “climate change” of “global warming” are mentioned pupils immediately cup their ears, under instruction from their parents.
It seems that, among certain sections of the population, the issue is a truth that dare not speak its name. Just as Creationism is a reactionary antidote to the theory of Evolution in some areas of America, the current absence of any mention of climate change in public discourse has been described by some as Climate Silence.
There is a crippling fear among some businesses and politicians that even raising the issue maybe seen as un-American. Unlike in the UK, where businesses recognise the commercial value of promoting green credentials and their progress on reducing emissions, large US corporations make it a rule not to mention it overtly in their corporate literature.
One company executive said corporations shy away from setting carbon reduction targets because they risk being sued if they fail to meet them.
“Corporate America is engaged in game of chicken with politicians because no-one wants to be the first to make it an issue,” he told me. “The politicians won’t raise it because they know it would leave them open to attack by influential sections who are opposed to any form of intervention in the economy. And if they don’t raise it, why should we when we know that it could be damaging to our bottom line?”
The result is that, despite hopes Obama would be more progressive than his predecessor, the climate change denying George W Bush, Washington has been in gridlock over the issue for the past four years, failing to pass any legislation on a national basis that would seek to curb the growth in US carbon emissions (the second highest in the world) .
Instead Obama’s strategy has been to play up the importance and benefits of US based green energy jobs and investment. The Recovery Act, passed within weeks of his inauguration, invested $90billion in the renewables industry, doubling the share of energy produced by renewable sources. He has also taken measures to reduce the polluting effects of the US auto industry, forcing manufacturers to improve the energy efficiency of their cars as a condition of bail-out funding.
In terms of carbon reduction commitments, America is being left far behind by Europe and emerging economies in Asia and South America. Governments and businesses in India, China, Australia and Mexico have signed up to ambitious carbon reduction targets and a series of policy measures to curb the use of fossil fuels.
Forward thinking initiatives developed in these areas include introducing carbon taxes or cap-and-trade schemes, which require the purchase of carbon permits in all carbon intensive industries such as coal, steel, paper, aluminium and glass and increasing subsidies and incentives to encourage the development of wind, wave, solar PV and other low carbon technologies.
So what can we expect from the next US administration?
On renewable energy, he opposes the extension of tax credits on wind energy contained in Obamas Recovery Act, while supporting the $4bn tax break enjoyed by the oil and gas industries.
He also wants to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) power to regulate carbon dioxide and remove its rules limiting emissions from coal plants. "I exhale carbon dioxide," he said last November in New Hampshire. "I don't want those guys [from the EPA] following me around with a meter to see if I'm breathing too hard."
There is a hope among some Obama supporters that he will feel less constricted during a second term to engage more proactively on climate change. They believe he understands the seriousness of the issue and they anticipate that he will continue with initiatives on energy efficiency, limiting further drilling for oil and gas off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and supporting the extension of tax credits on renewables, particularly wind.
Whether in light of Hurricane Sandy he will now attempt to seize the moment and re-engage with more purpose on climate change, move the aborted cap-and-trade bill through congress, commit the US to legally binding targets on carbon emissions and seek to lead a global consensus on emission reduction remains to be seen. What is sure is that, without American leadership on this issue, we will not make the progress we need in the UK and the rest of the world.
Kevin Houston is founder and chief executive of Edinburgh-based Carbon Masters (http://www.carbonmasters.co.uk)