The minute we glimpse a flicker of hope in the fight against climate change, Republicans in Congress announce their intention to snuff it out. Fortunately for the planet, it seems they can’t.
This week’s stunning announcement of a long-range agreement between the Obama administration and the Chinese government over carbon emissions is the best environmental news in years. Not to sound grandiose, it means the world still has a chance to save itself from unmitigated disaster.
The significance of the accord, which was doggedly pursued by Secretary of State John Kerry, is not just that the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases have agreed to take action. China’s ambitious target of generating 20 percent of its energy from sources other than fossil fuels by 2030 promises massive investment and innovation — a huge boost for clean-energy technologies, with impact worldwide.
Pay no attention to the “Yes, but” chorus. It is true that China could have committed to an earlier date for carbon emissions to level off and should have set interim targets. It is true that meeting the new U.S. goals will be no trivial undertaking. It is also true that the multiplying smokestacks of India, the third-largest emitter, will continue to spew heat-trapping carbon at an unfettered pace — for now.
These caveats are overshadowed by the fact that the U.S.-China agreement has the impact of a defibrillator upon U.N.-sponsored international negotiations for a global climate treaty, which have been sputtering for years and were on the verge of flat-lining. The deal makes irrelevant the argument that the whole endeavor is pointless unless the world’s two biggest emitters — together responsible for about 40 percent of the carbon being pumped into the atmosphere — are willing to commit themselves.
That argument has also been used domestically by foes of President Obama’s science-based climate policy. But if you expected Tuesday’s earthshaking announcement to change the hyper-partisan U.S. debate, well, you don’t know much about today’s Republican Party.
House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) immediately denounced the pact as “the latest example of the president’s crusade against affordable, reliable energy that is already hurting jobs and squeezing middle-class families.” Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), soon to be the majority leader, said he was “particularly distressed” by the deal and said that carbon regulations are already “creating havoc in my state and other states across the country.”
At least McConnell has the excuse of being from a coal-mining state where politicians can hardly be expected to jump for joy over carbon caps. The incoming head of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma — a state where coal is not a big industry — has called climate change a “hoax” and a conspiracy to “shut down this machine called America.”
“God’s still up there,” Inhofe said on a radio program in 2012. “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is, to me, outrageous.”
Inhofe’s view is theologically questionable and scientifically absurd, but there you have it: The senator with the most power to affect U.S. environmental policy does not believe climate change is conceivable, let alone real.
The problem for Republicans who want to stall climate action is that Obama can carry out his agenda without them. The GOP has enough votes in the House to pass legislation blocking this or that, but not enough to surmount the Senate’s de facto 60-vote threshold. And even if Republicans managed to get a bill through both chambers, they are far short of the two-thirds majorities they would need to override a presidential veto.
The most far-reaching action on climate change will emerge from the Environmental Protection Agency: By the middle of 2015, the EPA is scheduled to issue new rules limiting carbon emissions from new and existing power plants. Republicans may attempt to harry the agency through the budget process, but in the end there is probably little they can do.
Is China so committed to fighting climate change that it will not just meet but probably exceed its targets, as President Xi Jinping confidently predicted? We’ll see. But I’m convinced that the Chinese government sees long-term continued reliance on coal as politically unsustainable. Can India be persuaded to take any measures at all that might slow its rush to match China’s rapid development? I’m not entirely sure.
But the world is much closer to taking meaningful action against climate change than a week ago. This could be Obama’s most important legacy.