In the fourth session of Carnegie Europe’s New Vision Conference: Post-Bush America and the World, Tony Long, from the World Wild Fund’s European Policy Office, chaired a debate on how the EU and U.S. can effectively address climate change.

The panel consisted of Dr. Tom Burke, founding director of E3G, Dr. Jessica T. Mathews, President of the Carnegie Endowment, and Professor Laurence Tubiana, Director of the Institute of Sustainable Development and International Relations.

Tony Long opened the debate by suggesting that the gap between the U.S. approach to climate change and the EU's is widening despite both sides' recognition of the seriousness of the issue.

Climate Change Debate
Tom Burke observed that the debate is unusual in that all sides assume that policies designed to slow climate change will succeed. During the Cold War, it was assumed that policies aimed at maintaining geopolitical stability would fail, which drove leaders to find better solutions. Because we assume success, many who can do something are sitting back. Burke argued that this is a dangerous approach. We have a 15-year window in which to tackle climate change before we end up in a situation where we can do nothing but wait for the worst effects to take place.  

The dilemma is that no state is going to give up growth in order to protect the climate, but if the climate is not protected, then growth will give up on them. As a result, creating an integrated European energy policy has been a very difficult task. Creating a global climate policy will pose even more challenges.

Burke explained that when the U.S. reengages in the debate on climate change, they will not play catch up with Europe, but engage in the debate on their own terms, lengthening the time until actual action is taken. No matter what is decided, the actual implementation of policy will take a very long time due to the legislative procedures of the U.S. government. This does not fit well within the time frame of the Copenhagen Climate Conference, which is scheduled to reach its conclusions by 2009. Conference proceedings will be complicated by the re-entry of the U.S. into the debate. Its success or failure will be the result not of what actually happens at the conference, but of how those results are spun politically.

U.S. Climate Change Policy
Long questioned Burkes assumption that the U.S. would want to re-engage in the debate on climate change at all, asking Jessica T. Mathews for her expertise on the matter.

Mathews responded that it is the gap between U.S. and EU attitudes towards climate change that will remain the biggest disappointment in the post-Bush era. There has been very little in the way of change in the U.S. energy policy debate, despite the excitement caused by the Democratic takeover of the Congress in 2006.

Despite sources of optimism, the formation of a coalition of major environmental organizations and corporations that endorsed a decision by the U.S. government to cap CO2 emissions for instance, it seems that the U.S. is still convinced that it can drill its way out of its energy problem. In a poll conducted before the financial crisis, it was found that 60-70% rated energy independence as their number one concern – Mathews would guess that 90-95% of those people rated it so highly because they want to pay less for energy. It is not feasible to cut prices as well as emissions in the long term. Neither McCain nor Obama has mentioned this in their campaigns – the debate has not changed since 1973.

Mathews pointed out that there has been endless discussion about whether the U.S. should be using price controls or regulation to tackle the problem of climate change. The short answer is that both are needed in equal measure. Mathews asserted that the greatest problem in tackling climate change in the U.S. is that there is very little in the way of the political will to commit to the problem. There is endless basic research that is entirely non-threatening to any administration.

At the very least, 2009 will usher in a new U.S. government that is verbally committed to new policies. However, the bottom line is that this is one area where the world is going to be deeply disappointed by the next U.S. President unless something shocks the government into action.

EU Views of the U.S.

Laurence Tubiana echoed that argument by stating that Europe has high but unrealistic expectations about what the U.S. can do. Europe needs to broker an international agreement that will serve as the foundation for specific policies. The EU must recognize that it only has a domestic policy regarding climate change. A new global system to incorporate India, China and the U.S. will need to be formulated before meaningful global action is possible.

Tubiana did recognize a huge movement in the U.S. against deforestation. Deforestation is responsible for 20% of global carbon emissions. If the U.S. can get an international effort behind this movement, there will at least be one victory in the face of climate change.

Defining Expectations
A member of the audience questioned whether anything could realistically be done to combat climate change given U.S. inaction and the narrow window of opportunity afforded by the problem. He then asked what the chances are that China and other emerging markets will act on climate change and cooperate with the EU even if the gap between the EU and the U.S. cannot be closed.

Mathews responded by stating that there was an opportunity in the U.S. Congress legislative calendar to take domestic action through provisions for greater efficiency in the transportation bill. It is unclear whether or not Obama has the political capital to tackle this issue.

Burke responded that Europe needs to pursue opportunities rather than react to threats – for instance, creating a trade and investment plan with China. Europe needs to act on climate change because otherwise the rest of the world will follow its inaction. Burke added that there is a lot at stake with the Copenhagen Conference. If the conference ends with no conclusions or concrete plans, then it might make action against climate change collapse altogether. 

Tubiana explained that there is an enormous market of opportunity connected to climate issues. China, for the moment, is waiting to see what the U.S. is going to bring to the debate – as is India. What Europe needs to do is convince both China and India that it should be looking to Europe as much as the U.S. for leadership on this issue. This is absolutely necessary – the U.S. agenda is already so heavy (Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the financial crisis) that climate change will not be a priority. In China and India, on the other hand, climate change is moving up the agenda with floods and freak weather becoming increasingly common within their borders.

Security and Climate Change
On the floor, it was noted that there had been very little in the way of discussion about the security implications of climate change and whether or not these security issues are relevant to the U.S. An audience member observed that it might be possible for U.S. state governments to put pressure on the federal government, especially with regards to the transportation bill, and that a carbon tax could do a tremendous amount of good concerning climate change but that it would hurt the poorest countries.

Long questioned what would be the ramifications for the West's ability to address international tensions of all kinds if the gap between the U.S. and Europe continues to grow on climate change.

Burke responded that there is a need to worry about tensions between neighbours in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. What Europe needs to consider is whether it should resort to protectionism and nationalism, or work together. This is central to the future prosperity of the world.

Mathews closed by arguing that ‘there are all kinds of ways to skin the cat when you have decided to do it.’ Tackling climate change is a lot easier, and more economical, than we realize but the U.S. has not yet been able to make the mental leap to do it. Unlike nuclear proliferation, there are only about 20 countries that matter with regards to the climate change issue. It needs to be seen in the U.S. initially as a domestic issue, then a U.S.-China issue and then as a global issue, at which point India should become involved.

The new energy demand curve needs to be recognized – at the moment it simply is not present in our minds. Economically, it is likely that tackling the issue would result in a net benefit despite initial costs. The problem is that there would be a massive redistribution of winners and losers. The government in Washington D.C. does not have the power to initiate that redistribution like it did in the 1960s.

Tubiana agreed with Mathews that the system must focus on a major redistribution of winners and losers. It is a taboo question but it is beginning to be considered. The real question is how developing countries can stop being a negative force in the discussion about climate change and instead be engaged as a positive force. The most important point is to make sure that all countries recognize the economic opportunity in acting on climate change.