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Good news from the EPA

April 19th, 2009

The US Environmental Protection Authority has announced that emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are a threat to public health

, which opens the way for them to be regulated under the Clean Air Act, a measure once promised by George Bush as a presidential candidate but ferociously resisted by his administration.

As Brad Plumer explains here, the regulations will transform the Congressional debate over bills to introduce a national cap-and-trade system. In the absence of EPA regulations, and assuming continuation of current practices regarding the filibuster, the Republicans in the Senate could block any action as long as they could muster 41 votes (and of course, ratification of a treaty like Kyoto requires 66 out of 100 votes). But now the effect of a filibuster will be to leave the EPA to deal with the issue by regulation, which might include establishment of emissions trading schemes, as well as technological mandates to adopt best practice technology. Almost certainly, some Senate Republicans will prefer a deal where they get to protect some favored interests to a system of regulation over which they have no say.

The only other possibility for the Repubs, flagged by leading delusionist Senator Inhofe would be to pass legislation overriding the EPA determination. But Inhofe seems to have been drinking too deeply at the well of delusion, or else to be engaging in feelgood gestures – the likelihood of getting a Congressional majority for such an action is close to zero.

This is obviously a major step forward, and means that all governments in the developed world are now committed to reducing CO2 emissions (regardless of how much some would like to backslide on their commitments). The big question now is whether international negotiations can produce an agreement to stabilise the global climate or whether it will be politics as usual, with everyone trying to offer as little as possible.

At this stage, the omens don’t look that good. On the other hand, if you compare the situation now to that of, say, five years ago, when Bush and Howard were blocking any action at all, and climate section “sceptics” were still widely regarded[1] as serious participants in scientific debate, there has been a lot of progress.

fn1. Of course, they are still widely regarded that way in some quarters, but only by people who can’t be regarded as serious participants in debate of any kind.

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  1. April 19th, 2009 at 11:32 | #1

    Expect the anti-science Right to spin this as a law against exhaling.

  2. April 19th, 2009 at 12:40 | #2

    Pr Q says:

    This is obviously a major step forward, and means that all governments in the developed world are now committed to reducing CO2 emissions (regardless of how much some would like to backslide on their commitments).

    On ecological policy, Pr Q continues to eagerly place his faith in ostensibly Left-wing politicians, rather like Charlie Brown playing place-kick with Lucy. This is a recipe for disappointment.

    My interpretation of Obama’s EPA move, switching from the legislative to executive arm, is that the whole ecology issue will get bogged down in red-tape and industry capture. Obama is more likely to focus on technological construction as opposed to ecological conservation.

    This may sound like me being a political party-pooper. But I have some form here.

    For the past year or so I have predicted that Rudd and Obama would be more centrist and symbolic in their policy changes in their first terms. I was proved correct in being a skeptic on Rudd when it came to climate change. I am even more skeptical in regards to Obama.

    I seriously question Obama’s govts fist term committment to “reducing CO2 emissions”. Back in 02NOV08 I predicted that Obama would not make any serious climate changing policies in his first term:

    Obama comes accross to me as a canny centrist populist politician. Pretty much Bill Clinton without the sleaze. Undoubtedly he will swing the US polity to the Left.

    But he will also remember that the US polity has a fairly large mass of (temporarily submerged) Right-wing ballast. Bill Clinton discovered this to his dismay in 1994.

    In a follow-up comment on the same day I mistakenly argued that Obama’s climate goals were in “lock-step with Stern”. (They are not, they are miles behind Stern.) But I stand by my conclusion:

    SO if he makes real progress towards [a green revolution] in his first term I will be the first to gladly say “I was wrong”.

    On 03APR09 I commented that Obama’s CO2 curbing committment compared poorly even against Rudd’s relatively low bar setting:

    My understanding of OBama’s climate change policy is that he is promising pie-in-the-sky carbon cuts in the long term, but over the time-horizon of his presidency he is being much less bold:

    Obama has called for the US to cut emissions 80% by 2050. But, during his election campaign, he proposed reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, well below the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) guidance that developed countries should make cuts of 25-40% by 2020.

    In short, in an apples to apples comparison over through to 2020, Obama is proposing 0% cuts in US emissions versus Rudd’s proposed 5% cuts. Not really “trailing the [US part of] the world” by that much.

    Now this comparison is not quite apples-to-apples, since Obama chose the comparatively more demanding 1990 baseline, as against Rudd easier 2000 mark. But there cant be a whole heap of difference bw the two since Rudd is committing to a minimum 5% cut on 2000, whereas Obama is just going for 0% cuts on 1990.

    For the life of me I cannot see why Obama’s target is anything to write home about. I predict Obama will just kick this issue down the road for a few years and only start to get real in the run-up to his second term, to energise his base.

  3. Ikonoclast
    April 19th, 2009 at 12:44 | #3

    I think radical criticisms of corporate capitalism will soon become mainstream again. This will occur when people begin to see the irrefutable evidence mounting up that the current corporate capitalist system is destroying our planet’s capacity to support us.

    I endorse a social-democratic society and a well-regulated market and public enterprise system (on the 80-20 model of 80% private and 20% public enterprise). I repeat this to point out that I am not a classical communist nor a rabid socialist.

    However, I do endorse the Socialist Alternative view of carbon trading as laid out in the following article. I feel the radical greens and socialists are correct in pointing out “The Great Carbon Trading Scam”.

    http://www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1492&Itemid=106

    I also endorse the thrust of the article “Climate Fraud and Carbon Colonialism”. I re-post the link here.

    http://www.tni.org/archives/bachram/cns.pdf

    I have not seen any Cap and Trade ETS supporters provide cogent arguments against these points. Cap and Trade ETS supporters please feel free to post links and rebut if you can.

  4. Hermit
    April 19th, 2009 at 14:15 | #4

    The sulphur oxides (SOx) auction conducted by the USA EPA seems to run smoothly though maybe some major bug fixes have been kept quiet. For example it was conducted by the Chicago Climate Exchange who appear to have lost the contract.

    That said CO2 and other warming gases are vastly bigger in scale. There’s also every reason to suppose that the mistakes made by the EU and Australia’s current dithering will be repeated by the US. For example free permits, low targets, Senate inquiries, clean coal institutes etc. In a perfect world Australia and the US could compare notes and get it right in tandem. We could only hope.

  5. April 19th, 2009 at 15:02 | #5

    Pr Q says:

    At this stage, the omens don’t look that good. On the other hand, if you compare the situation now to that of, say, five years ago, when Bush and Howard were blocking any action at all, and climate section “sceptics” were still widely regarded as serious participants in scientific debate, there has been a lot of progress.

    No doubt Obama-Rudd represent progress on Bush-Howard. But this is setting the bar pretty low. Perhaps this is more of a glass half-full/empty argument.

    Climate change is not an issue central to the personal success of Obama or Rudd. Or the political success of their respective parties.

    Both leaders face the tricky task of:

    – appeasing their own party’s base
    – not arousing the opposition party’s base
    – not getting too far ahead of the median voter.

    Both Obama and Rudd are first term leaders who are more worried about arousing their oppositions base rather than appeasing their own base. They are understandably worried about flanking attacks by die-hard Right-wingers.

    Obama and Rudd are playing a waiting game as the Right wing political momentum generated in the nineties is slowly exhausted. Neither want to “rouse [the RWDBs] from their dogmatic slumbers” on climate change. They are waiting for RWDBs to die of old age or opt for a painless form of euthanasia. Younger people are far more Left-wing in the “Climate War”.

    That is why Obama, at least for the first term, has run on “hopes” for “change”, rather than change itself. (Rudd is in much the same boat, hence the elaborate hoaxes of 2020 conference and symbolic indulgences on Apologies etc.)

    As time goes on it will be easier to shift further to the Left on climate change. That is because the oil price will start to trend upwards (it already has) since the PRC juggernaut is still in motion.

    The median voter tends to accept sacrifices on carbon energy policy when the oil price goes up. That is why its hard to get too political traction right now. When the price of oil goes up the voters seem more willing to make the jump to a “low-carb” economy.

    I predict that both Obama and Rudd will be more radical and Leftist in their second terms, especially on climate change. On the political front the Climate War RWDBs will weaken. And on the policy front, it will become easier to slap a carbon tax onto rising oil prices.

    I predict that by 2010-12 govts will get start to get serious about climate change and being proposing or imposing a Carbon Tax.

    Those are my predictions, which are testable and falsifiable.

  6. jquiggin
    April 19th, 2009 at 15:09 | #6

    Jack at #5, you may or may not be pleased to know that I agree almost entirely with this comment, though of course there is plenty that can go wrong.

  7. pablo
    April 19th, 2009 at 19:59 | #7

    One good thing that is expected of the EPA’s new regulatory power is to produce nation-wide rules on vehicle exhaust standards, a significant contributor to GHG emissions. Commentators on the US PBS Newshour program were predicting that the stringent Californian regulations would set the EPA standard.

  8. April 19th, 2009 at 20:36 | #8

    Ikon — how do you measure the 80:20 split? The government already controls wel over 20% of the economy. Through tax & spending they control over 30%, and then more through public ownership and more through regulation of private decisions.

    The trend in the western world throughout the 20th century has been for a steady growth in government from perhaps about 10% involvement to now about 50% involvement. In some places in the UK (which is apparently part of the evil “anglo” model) the government already controls over 70% of the economy (not counting regulation).

    If people are rebelling against the current system, then they are rebelling against social democracy.

    Personally, I like social democracy. It is one of the relatively good political philosophies… just behind radical libertarianism and liberal democracy. :)

  9. April 19th, 2009 at 21:31 | #9

    John beat me to the punch regarding the 80:20 split. I’d be quite happy to see us moving towards such an 80:20 situation. I’d even pause for breath and happily review the empirical evidence before proceeding beyond that point.

  10. April 19th, 2009 at 23:07 | #10

    Miranda Devine, columnist but perhaps not journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald, seems to be unaware of the US EPA report.

    She quotes Professor Ian Plimer:
    “One of the lessons of 500 million years of history, he says, is that there is no relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature.”

    What I particularly liked was Professor Plimer’s analogy:
    The mind is like a parachute. It only works when it is open”.

    It seems to me the success of the open parachute for the traveler depends on the surrounding atmosphere, which determines the outcome of a happy condition on arrival.

  11. Ikonoclast
    April 19th, 2009 at 23:19 | #11

    1. How do I measure the 80-20 split? I would measure it on employment. I would want to see about 20% of the workforce as government workers; more if necessary to achieve point 2 below.

    2. The public service at all tiers (federal, state and local) should function as a reserve employer. In this manner unemployment could be reduced to frictional unemployment (about 2%) and a reserve basic wage would be set by the public sector.

    This idea is not original of course. Plenty have proposed it before.

  12. April 19th, 2009 at 23:25 | #12

    It is all well and good to call for the public sector to pick up the slack in employment during a downturn in private sector employment, however this merely works as a ratchet because it almost never lets them go again when the good times roll by. It is better to achieve full employment by making wages flexible.

  13. Ikonoclast
    April 19th, 2009 at 23:25 | #13

    Jack Strocchi outlines a convincing case predicting future political movement on climate change. However, on that scenario when is real substantive action ever going to start? We are already running one or two decades too late on this task. We will be in deep strife very soon, my friends.

  14. Ikonoclast
    April 19th, 2009 at 23:27 | #14

    No TerjeP, it’s better to achieve full employment by using the public service as a reserve employer. We are arguing by assertion now. :)

  15. Ian Gould
    April 20th, 2009 at 00:18 | #15

    I find it interesting that without bothering to look at the author’s name I was able to successfully identify Jack Strocchi’s comments based solely on their length.

  16. Ian Gould
    April 20th, 2009 at 00:25 | #16

    I fear that my previous post will inspire several thousand more words of pompous windbaggery from Mr Strocchi.

    in the probably futile hope of heading off such a result, I’d like to assure Mr Strocchi that I shan’t bother to read his response.

  17. Ikonoclast
    April 20th, 2009 at 06:37 | #17

    I read jack strocchi’s post with interest. I thought it was amusing and accurate. If he has the posts to back his predictive claims, I think he is entitled to a little I-told-you-so.

    Ian Gould, does your stamina hold for an essay or even (brace yourself) a novel or philosophical treatise? ;)

  18. carbonsink
    April 20th, 2009 at 17:12 | #18

    I predict that by 2010-12 govts will get start to get serious about climate change and being proposing or imposing a Carbon Tax.

    I predict that by 2012 no Anglo country will have imposed (or seriously proposed) a carbon tax. The Euros will still have their hopelessly ineffective ETS (and there may be similarly ineffective ETS’s in Australia and the US) but no-one in the Anglosphere will have an actual carbon tax.

    In fact, we’ll be pretty much where we are today, with a lot of hand-wringing about how “real action” is needed at the next Bali/Copenhagen/whatever conference. The delusionists will still be delusional. The govt will still be throwing money at pilot CCS projects, aviation will have grown another 25%, and the Chinese will still be building a dozen coal-fired power stations a week.

    Anyone want to take that bet?

  19. nanks
    April 20th, 2009 at 17:42 | #19

    I’ll bet you’re right carbonsink – at least as far as Australia is concerned ie no real action

  20. David Irving (no relation)
    April 20th, 2009 at 18:01 | #20

    Shorter carbonsink – we’re screwed.

    And no, I won’t take your bet. I already have a bet going with Robert Merkel elsewhere – he thinks we’ll be (on average) richer in 2030 than we are now, I reckon we’ll be poorer.

  21. chrisl
    April 20th, 2009 at 18:02 | #21

    Not me. You know what you are talking about.

  22. Ikonoclast
    April 20th, 2009 at 19:28 | #22

    Yes, I wonder what it is going to take to finally drive the truth home to people and politicians in relation to climate change. There’s going to have to be some dramatic events. Nothing much will happen until people see it right in their face wrecking their lives.

    A major methane release from the methane clathrates on the sea bed might do it; a 100 or 1000 sq kms of sea boiling with released methane. Or perhaps an ice free Arctic or a major collapse of Greenland or Anatartic Ice. Or maybe the failure of the Atlantic Conveyer (the ocean current not the ship in the Falklands War).

    From China’s point of view, desertification and sea level rise will eventually prove to be the fundamental limiting mechanism on their CO2 output if they do nothing else about it.

  23. chrisl
    April 20th, 2009 at 19:43 | #23

    Ikon: It is going to take more than computer simulations,recycled pictures of ice shelves cracking or pictures of steam coming out of power stations.
    It is shaping up like the boy who cried wolf.
    Do you know anybody who has sold their car or removed themselves from the grid?
    The power stations are the problem but what of the customers?

  24. Ikonoclast
    April 20th, 2009 at 21:46 | #24

    Chrisl, I suspect you are sceptic about AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming). I am not sure if anyone has done any opinion surveys in Australia recently but my straw poll count of opinions on the ABC indicates that AGW sceptics are in the majority of those who post.

    My sense is that westerners care about the environment (in vague feel-good terms) but that the majority are either sceptical or apathetic about AGW specifically. If the world population is taken as a whole then it is clear that a majority are either unaware of the issue, apathetic, downright sceptical or have a vested interest in the current status quo. And of course, the current system has a massive momentum to continue on the same path.

    This indicates nothing will be done about AGW. The experiment, with the earth as its test case, will continue to conclusion. I reckon we’ll know within 20 years and maybe even within 10.

  25. pablo
    April 20th, 2009 at 22:24 | #25

    It would be interesting if the EPA could sponsor (no money, just the prestige and perhaps a green light for a patent) an electronic gadget for cars that would pre-assess driver motive. Like the alcohol sniffing non-ignition, the pre-assess polygraph would determine if the driver had a sufficient reason for the car to be bothered going. Lying would be detected in this destination log and only pre-determined (and ‘sufficient’) destinations would allow ignition. There could be a driver altruism setting that could see some vehicles only moving out for an annual vacation, but these would be the exception. Work destination approvals would not necessarily be sufficient justification for start-up, nor getting kids to school.
    The intelligent car? You guessed it and an AGW saving of perhaps 10 – 12 percent?

  26. Hermit
    April 20th, 2009 at 22:40 | #26

    If GW turns out as bad as some predict it could be Mother Nature’s cruel joke on the human race. She warned us but we shrugged it off. What I fear is if it is eventually taken seriously it may be too late, like the lung cancer patient giving up cigarettes. Conservatives might do well do to have an each way bet. If there is a calamitous event near term the knives will be out. In Australia that could be a tidal surge in a coastal resort, a massive regional crop failure, permanent coral bleaching or even a no-snow year. Fire storms and floods no longer seem to sound the alarm bells.

    A strong possibility is that the economic downturn will deliver sustained carbon cuts without administrative intervention. Pundits with runs on the board are predicting a global liquids fuels crisis by 2015. If so there will be no economic recovery. Whether that limits or merely postpones warming from secondary methane release seems unclear.

  27. carbonsink
    April 21st, 2009 at 08:41 | #27

    chrisl & Ikon:

    Its more ignorance and apathy than outright skepticism or denial. Most of the population is (naturally) far more focused on their day-to-day life than big, slow moving issues like climate change. People are much more worried about their employment security at the moment than climate change or other “environmental” issues. Concern about the environment is fine during boom times, but its a luxury you can’t afford when you don’t have a job.

    It is going to take more than computer simulations,recycled pictures of ice shelves cracking or pictures of steam coming out of power stations.

    It sure is. It will take a catastrophe of 2004 tsunami proportions, in Australia, and by then it will be too late.

    The only plausible course of action, prior to catastrophe, is to engineer a cleantech bubble. Its positive, it will restart investment, and it will create jobs. The politicians won’t use sticks so we have to use carrots. We need to get Mum and Dad investors talking about investing in windfarms instead of real estate, BHP, and the big 4.

  28. chrisl
    April 21st, 2009 at 17:50 | #28

    Carbonsink: To emphasise your point -Its more ignorance and apathy than outright skepticism or denial- I spoke to some old friends on the weekend who are selling their perfectly good 25 square home and are building a 50 square home. And they are empty nesters!
    They obviously didn’t get the memo.

  29. Dave
    April 22nd, 2009 at 02:02 | #29

    Jack, I think generally you are right about things, but you do go on a bit too long and you do have to point out how right you always are. Try to be a bit briefer and reader-friendly.

  30. April 23rd, 2009 at 11:56 | #30

    This announcement is a very useful bargaining chip for the administration when trying to deal with congress. It increases the likelihood that the Waxman-Markey emissions trading legislation will get through congress. While the trajectory in the Waxman-Markey legislation is not sufficent to avoid dangerous climate change or get developing countries to take on their own emission reduction commitments, it is a good first step.

    It therefore follows that the next international agreement needs some flexibility to tighten the emissions reduction trajectory later.

    A crucial difference between the Waxman-Markey legislation and the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme legislation is that the Waxman-Markey legislation specifies an upper bound for the US’s emissions, while the CPRS also specifies a lower bound. This problem with the CPRS could be addressed by removing paragraphs 2(b) and 3(b) from Section 15 of the Exposure Draft Legislation.

  31. Y2K
    April 23rd, 2009 at 20:53 | #31

    BOTH sides of the debate seem to think the EPA Endangerment finding is “good news”.

    In the world’s most litigious domain, the EPA’s preliminary ruling is no more than a starter’s gun. Numerous well-funded lobbies which have fulminated in the past about IPCC Reports now have a justiciable issue.Where there is real risk of adverse regulation (by an Agency exercising delegated powers) there is access to the Courts.

    Like “the culture wars”, this issue will only be determined by the Supreme Court (currently conservative). Meantime,the EPA’s findings will remain a matter of opinion.

  32. May 6th, 2009 at 15:35 | #32

    #28 Dave Says: April 22nd, 2009 at 2:02 am

    Jack, I think generally you are right about things, but you do go on a bit too long and you do have to point out how right you always are. Try to be a bit briefer and reader-friendly.

    Dave,

    Thankyou for your kind compliment, accurate criticism and useful advice.

    Its always a struggle to curb my innate tendency to long-winded, incomprehensible and offensive commentary.

    I will try to keep it under control. Not making any rash predictions on this one, though.

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