It is all but inconceivable that Obama can deliver the 67 votes in the Senate needed to ratify a global climate treaty — no matter what happens in the 12 months between Poznań and Copenhagen. And the only thing worse than no global climate treaty in 2009 is a treaty that Obama can’t get ratified.
Yes, Democrats have expanded their majority in the Senate, edging closer and closer to the magical 60 votes needed to stop filibusters. But the conservatives in Congress are stuck in 1985 (1885?), unwilling or unable to acknowledge the now painfully obvious reality of global warming or the remarkable advances that have been made in clean technologies.
Conservative Senators lined up as a solid block against the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner climate bill (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 6: What the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill debate tells us“). Worse, the GOP seems to think that among all the losing issues they pushed in their historic drubbing at the polls, their “drill baby drill” message was actually a winner. As one post-election story put it
But several prominent party officials said they believe the GOP’s message is fundamentally sound when it comes to energy policy, pointing to that issue as one of the few political bright spots in recent years.
Again, that was not from an article by The Onion.
The GOP has apparently borrowed their motto from Talleyrand’s comment on the dying French aristocracy, “They have learned nothing, and they have forgotten nothing.” As I noted in "Notes from the conservative stagnation, Part 10," Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, “suggested that some calls to update conservatism — by taking global warming more seriously, for instance — were essentially disguised calls to move the party to the left.” He added, “They will be cheerfully ignored.” Denial is bliss.
Every major conservative think tank remains fervently blind to reality (see, for instance, “The intellectual bankruptcy of conservatism: Heritage even opposes energy efficiency” and “The American Enterprise Institute: Still crazy with denial and delay“). The major conservative pundits are equally blinkered (see “Krauthammer, Part 2: The real reason conservatives don’t believe in climate science” and “George Will nails the difference between conservatives and progressives“).
So we can expect the vast majority of GOP Senators to keep beating the drums that any cap-and-trade bill — domestic or international — will raise energy prices and ruin the economy. We can expect repetitions of lines from the Senate debate last summer:
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.: “The vast majority of scientists do not believe that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are a major contributor to climate change.” Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.: This bill means “people must turn off air-conditioning in the summer.” Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.: “This bill will attack citizens at the pump” and “increase job losses.” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.: This bill will “leave us less competitive in the world marketplace.” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.: This bill “could bankrupt U.S. air carriers.” Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo.: “Nobody in their right mind” believes we can get half our power from wind and solar or drive a “fleet of golf carts.”
Note that these attacks can be trotted out whether we are in a recession and energy prices are low or if we have recovered economically and energy prices are rising again.
So even if there are 60 Senate votes to override a right-wing filibuster against a strong domestic climate bill, there aren’t 67 votes for a new climate treaty. And that means the UNFCCC process as we now know it is essentially a Dead Man Walking, even if nobody knows it yet.
Obama needs to think very hard about whether he is making promises he can’t keep. International negotiators are now in Poland to figure out how to create a follow on to the Kyoto protocol in Copengagen next December (see “Will Poznań be a good COP, a bad COP or just another COP out?“).
Last month, Obama gave a surprise post-election climate address in which he directly said to delegates around the world headed to Poland that “your work is vital to the planet”:
And once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations, and help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change.
We do need a new era of global cooperation on climate change. But Obama will need all of his eloquence and smarts — and that of his new exceptional Secretary of State — to figure out how to replace the UNFCCC process with something more viable. And he needs to think hard about the value of “engaging vigorously” in the negotiations of a global treaty he can’t ratify.
The prize we must keep our eyes on, however, is not any particular process but a particular outcome — keeping total planetary warming to under 2°C warming from preindustrial levels. How Obama might pursue that Herculean challenge on the international stage outside of the UNFCCC process will be the focus of Part Two.