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Climate Change Politics in North America (Part Two)

May 19, 2006 // 9:00am2:00pm
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Environmental Change and Security Program
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In an economically integrated North America, the problem of climate change—and how to address it—raises a host of difficult questions for policymakers, legislators, and business leaders. Conference participants discussed the diversity of climate change strategies proposed by the NAFTA region's governments, nonprofits, and business communities.

One of most significant challenges is the persistent inability to "get around and move beyond the Kyoto Protocol," as Stacy VanDeveer put it. Peter Stoett explained that in Canada, the climate change debate is "dominated by Kyoto." Likewise, Mexico's approach to climate has revolved around the Kyoto Protocol, according to Simone Pulver, although she noted that climate change policymaking has been a "stop and go process" since the Mexican senate ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2000. Interestingly, the state-owned Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) and the Mexican business community have taken a more forceful approach to climate change, advocating environmentally friendly actions to reduce emissions and promote awareness of climate change.

In Canada, critics of the Protocol point out that their country has been unable to fulfill its obligations—current emissions are about 25 percent above 1990 levels. Since withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol is not an option politically—nor is renegotiating Canada's commitments under it—a "made-in-Canada" approach— "less Kyoto, more Ottawa"—may be in the works, according to Stoett, that will divert attention from the country's failure to meet its target. The new Conservative government, led by recently elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is considering revamping the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to focus attention on air quality and Great Lakes pollution. Tim Kennedy noted that the Conservatives have also renewed interest in nuclear energy as a low-carbon energy source. He explained that the Conservatives' animosity to Kyoto stems in part from the manner in which the then-Liberal government—largely dominated by politicians from Quebec and Ontario—was perceived to have negotiated and then adopted the protocol: Western Canadian provinces, already lukewarm toward the Kyoto process, felt the Protocol was forced on them unwillingly.

Lack of political leadership

A number of panelists bemoaned the lack of political will and committed leadership among national decision-makers. Kennedy noted that then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien put forward a target of six percent below 1990 emissions levels based not on economic considerations—the government originally proposed a target zero to three percent below 1990 levels—but on political ones: "Chrétien wanted to do better that the United States, which had proposed a target of five percent."

Stoett concurred, remarking that leaders of Canada's federal government made commitments they were unable to implement because of domestic political differences with provincial governments. Indeed, Kennedy asserted that for many provinces, especially those in Western Canada, the federal government's decision to sign onto the Kyoto Protocol was "a slap in the face." Moreover, despite its rhetoric supporting strict emissions reductions, the Canadian federal government moved slowly and implemented few programs designed to meet the agreed-upon targets. (The new Harper government has since dismantled them.) Stoett argued convincingly that progress in the climate change debate would therefore likely come from the subnational, rather than federal, level. Sardonically, he observed that "if we have to wait for the feds for decisive action, the North Pole will have melted away."

State-led climate change initiatives

While the Canadian federal government has been a leading proponent of the Kyoto Protocol, Barry Rabe argued that "few provinces apart from Manitoba and Alberta have built the policy capacity to address climate change." However, in the United States, Julie Anderson remarked, the progress on climate change policymaking—however limited—is in part due to leadership at the state level, especially the western and northeastern states.

Seven northeastern states—Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware—have established the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade program that uses a market-based emissions trading system to reduce greenhouse gases. Cap-and-trade systems set a limit on the total amount of emissions and allocate permits up to that limit among companies, but allow them to buy and sell permits in the market. In 2001, six New England states and five Eastern Canadian provinces adopted a separate Climate Change Action Plan; Henrik Selin argued that its goal to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2010 is realistic, but has remained elusive to date.

Rabe explained that the "perceived economic costs and payoffs" are a major consideration driving U.S. state policies on climate. Indeed, economic arguments underlie many of the new state initiatives: economic development officers and businesses eager to capitalize on the opportunities and incentives that may be offered for renewable energy projects or new technologies have helped push policies forward, such as California's Renewable Portfolio Standard program.

Political calculations and bureaucratic competition have also played a major role: Selin argued that partisan competition to control environmental policy was a critical driver of the RGGI process. Backers of the initiative hope to eventually spur the U.S. government to take similar action—in many ways, participating states are becoming "policy laboratories" for climate change strategies. Rabe concurred, noting that some state activities are purposefully designed to coax a response on the part of the federal government. But Rabe warned, "At what point does the federal government push back and preempt states trying to capture the economic benefits of climate change policy?"

Michele Betsill presented a paper on the prospects for emissions trading within the framework of the NAFTA. However, Joe Dukert argued forcefully that the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America—a framework for Canada, the United States, and Mexico to advance collaboration in security, transportation, the environment, and public health—offered "the best forum" to connect federal and state-level initiatives regarding climate change policy.

Energy and climate change

Carbon emissions from electricity generation must be addressed by climate change policies. Alexander Farrell reviewed the recent turbulent history of California's electricity market and its impact on the state's progressive stance on climate change. The fallout from the 2000 energy crisis, the overlapping portfolios of competing state environmental and energy agencies, and the election of climate-friendly governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, have led to a number of initiatives and actions designed to reduce emissions and improve efficiency, including a preferential "loading order" that excludes coal plants. But what role will fossil fuel-fired plants—a large part of the state's supply portfolio—play in meeting electricity demand as new standards come into force? Farrell argued that the outlook for climate change policymaking in the state remains uncertain, but could be "at a tipping point."

Ian Rowlands examined the role of hydropower, which generates most of Canada's electricity. While most hydropower facilities do not produce greenhouse gases, there is significant disagreement over how "clean" or "green" it is. Hydropower pollutes significantly less than other electric generating fuels, but large dams are also blamed for a number of social and environmental ills—such as dislocating communities and disrupting ecosystems. Joe Dukert pointed out that nuclear power, although reviled by many environmentalists, could be a viable option for generating carbon-free electricity.

Communications and public perceptions

How to communicate climate change is a pervasive problem. David Levy emphasized the importance of managing expectations in decision-making. If climate change poses no immediate risk, the costs associated with undertaking actions designed to mitigate those risks may dissuade business and policymakers from acting decisively. In the United States, the insurance industry has been slow to accept the link between changes in weather to climate change, and to change their business practices in response, according to Virginia Haufler. In Europe, where public perceptions of climate change differ markedly from those in the United States, insurers have more proactively catered to this new market. A number of civil society and environmental advocacy groups argue that the insurance industry could act as an influential lever on big greenhouse gas emitters.

Stoett argued that positioning climate change as a mainstream issue would help create more effective initiatives to address it. Universities provide an ideal forum for exchanging information and encouraging debate. As Dovev Levine explained, universities are also "incubators" of technology and "green policies"—and thus help raise awareness about the potential cost savings of many new technologies.

Susi Moser analyzed the link between communication and civic action, focusing on what blocks climate change education from prompting effective responses among the public. She argued that a host of barriers—political, psychological, cognitive, and social—prevent individuals from engaging in civic action. The challenge facing scholars, activities, politicians, and policymakers is crafting communications strategies that galvanize the public into action—especially difficult in North American societies suffering from "information overload."

Drafted by Christophe Leroy.

Climate Politics in North America
• Henrik Selin, Boston University, and Stacy D. VanDeveer, University of New Hampshire, "The State of Play"
• Peter Stoett, Concordia University, "Canada, Kyoto, and the Conservatives"
Discussant: Tim Kennedy, Global Public Affairs

California and the Northeast: Out Front on Climate
• Alexander Farrell, University of California, Berkeley, "The Political Economy of California and West Coast Climate Action"
• Henrik Selin, Boston University, and Stacy D. VanDeveer, University of New Hampshire, "Climate Leadership in Northeast North America"
Discussant: Julie Anderson, Union of Concerned Scientists

Climate Politics in the Private Sector and on Campus
• David Levy, University of Massachusetts, Boston, "U.S. Business Strategies and Climate Change"
• Virginia Haufler, University of Maryland, "Insurance and Reinsurance in a Changing Climate"
• Dovev Levine, University of New Hampshire, "Climate Action on Campus"
Discussant: Truman Semans, PEW Climate Center

Policymaking Leadership in States, Provinces, and Individuals
• Barry Rabe, University of Michigan, "Second Generation Climate Policies in the States: Proliferation, Diffusion, Regionalization"
• Susi Moser, National Center for Atmospheric Research, "Communicating about Climate and Motivating Citizen Action"
Discussant: Andrew Aulisi, World Resources Institute

NAFTA and Continental Energy Politics
• Michele Betsill, Colorado State University, "NAFTA as a Forum for CO2 Permit Trading?"
• Simone Pulver, Brown University, "Energy and Climate Politics in Mexico"
• Ian Rowlands, University of Waterloo, "Renewable Energy Politics across Borders"
Discussant: Joseph M. Dukert, , Independent Energy Consultant

 
Event Speakers List: 
  • University of Michigan
  • Research Scientist, National Center for Atmospheric Research
  • World Resources Institute
  • Assistant Professor, Colorado State University; Affiliate Scientist, National Center for Atmospheric Research
  • Assistant Professor, Watson Institute of International Studies, Brown University
  • University of Waterloo
  • Independent Energy Consultant

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