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Fight over how to reach targets already under way

It's not easy brokering a deal to halt global warming amid the current climate of suspicion, with rich regions pitted against poor ones, fossil-fuel industries against green ones and ambitious politicians against one another.

This doesn't refer to Copenhagen. This is about Washington, where the climate-change power struggle is really playing out.

President Barack Obama may come back from Denmark with a semblance of achievement, especially if his last-minute decision to attend the end of the United Nations conference on climate change rather than the beginning is a sign that a breakthrough can be made.

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But to be at all effective, any agreement would have to overcome the slick manoeuvring of the financially flush entrenched interests that have bathed Washington in lobbying dollars at record rates this year.

The oil and gas companies, coal miners and utilities that pay big bucks to buy access on Capitol Hill are intent on making sure they end up winners under any bill the President signs. How that could even be possible, when fossil fuels are the principle climate-change culprits, only makes sense in the minds of the lobbyists, for whom there is no such thing as a public interest that is more than the sum of competing private interests.

And private interests will determine whether American climate-change legislation has teeth sharper than a baby's to enforce the target of reducing U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by the 17 per cent or so below 2005 levels, which is what Mr. Obama has set out.

The Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, which compiles data on the flow of advocacy and campaign money in the U.S. capital, notes that energy-related companies hired more than 2,000 lobbyists and spent more than $200-million (U.S.) on lobbying in the first six months of 2009 as the climate- change debate heated up. They outspent environmental groups 20-to-1.

At $39-million (U.S.), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce - the leading critic of climate-change legislation and health-care reform - spent more on lobbying in the third quarter of this year than it spent in the first nine months of 2008 combined.

For decades, coal mining companies were relatively absent from the lobbying game, spending less than $2-million annually before 2005. That was the year their spending jumped to $7-million (U.S.) as it began a skyward trajectory that reached $16.7-million (U.S.) in 2008.

"It's far too early to say exactly what effect these expenditures will ultimately have on climate-change legislation and energy policy in general," CRP spokesman Dave Levinthal says. "But at the outset, the energy industry, particularly oil and gas, is coming to the game with some very big players and a lot of [financial]strength."

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What are they seeking? In the case of the coal industry, it's the assurance that adjusting to a carbon-constrained environment won't cost them, their workers or consumers a cent. But with coal-fired power plants accounting for half of U.S. electricity production (and almost 30 per cent of greenhouse-gas emissions), Mr. Obama can't reach his targets without inflicting pain on someone.

Yet, the thousands of coal-mining jobs on which some of the poorest regions of the U.S. depend and the monthly electricity bill for consumers have a way of concentrating politicians' minds on the nitty-gritty. That explains why the climate-change bill passed in June by the House of Representatives, while setting robust reduction targets of 17 per cent by 2020 and 83 per cent by 2050, contains so many freebies for coal-based utilities.

The catch is that, to reach the targets for cutting greenhouse gases, legislation would not only need to put a high enough price on carbon to encourage utilities to reduce their emissions, it would also have to ensure that the price of permits to spew carbon escalates significantly year after year. But instead of charging for the carbon permits in the first years of the cap-and-trade regime envisioned in the House bill, it gives most of them away for free, creating little incentive for firms to slash their emissions.

That makes the 2020 target a dubious one. As for the 2050 target, Congress has a long history of passing legislation that looks tough only to recant down the road and postpone the pain time and again.

The first House bill, which was only the first step in a long legislative process before a final bill becomes law, only passed by a whisker - 219 votes to 212. Since June, several House members who supported the bill have had second thoughts as they get closer to their rendezvous with the electorate in November. With the struggling economy still creating anxiety for Americans, few candidates can risk being tarred by their opponents as "cap-and-tax" Democrats or accused of selling out domestic workers.

Some leading Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing for the adoption of a so-called purity test under which those seeking the party nomination in next year's mid-term races would have to demonstrate their ideological bona fides by, among other things, opposing cap-and-trade.

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In this context, it's hard to see how Mr. Obama could rally two-thirds of senators, the number he would need for U.S. ratification of any future international climate-change treaty, behind even nominal targets much less binding ones.

For Mr. Obama, Copenhagen could turn out to be the easy part.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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