Leadership on climate change depends on Obama
All eyes are now on US president Barack Obama and whether he can provide real leadership on climate change. Having said nothing about it during the election campaign for fear of losing votes, he came out of the closet in his inauguration speech, saying people could not be left to “raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms”.
As the US was facing its “fiscal cliff” budget crisis, former vice-president and climate change Nobel peace laureate Al Gore urged Obama to push for a carbon tax. “He has the mandate. He has the opportunity, and he has the inherent ability to provide the leadership needed. I really hope that he will,” Gore said. He didn’t.
The US Congressional Research Service has estimated a carbon tax starting at $20 per tonne and rising by 6 per cent a year could raise $154 billion (€114 billion) by 2021, which would be enough to “halve the fiscal deficit”, according to Nick Robins, head of HSBC bank’s climate centre. Rich pickings, in other words.
Gore knows it won’t be easy, but told the Guardian a carbon tax could be made more palatable by offsetting it against cuts in income tax. Public opinion has also shifted in the wake of extreme weather last year, with polls showing 67 per cent of Americans agreeing that climate change is real – up from 57 per cent in 2009.
In his state of the union speech last week, Obama mentioned regulating carbon, doubling the use of renewables, boosting alternative energy for transport and halving energy waste. “If Congress won’t act soon, I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take,” he said.
The New York Times has also rowed in behind taking action. In an editorial on December 27th last, the newspaper said Obama needed to do a “good deal more” than engage in dialogue on climate change. However, it cautioned that a “cap-and-trade” regime or a direct tax on carbon “seems out of the question for this Congress”.
There are still powerful forces ranged against changing the order of things. Take the Canadian tar sands lobby, for example. Government officials from Ottawa toured European capitals last month in an effort to have fuel derived from the bitumen sands of Alberta treated leniently in the EU’s directive on fuel quality.
Oil from tar sands emits between 19 and 40 per cent more CO2 than conventional oil, and the huge increase in its production explains why Canada had to withdraw from the Kyoto protocol. Even in 2008, its greenhouse gas emissions were 24 per cent above 1990 levels, when they should have been cut by 6 per cent.