I’m not asking whether we should pass a serious climate bill before China acts. The answer to that question is obviously yes, as I’ve written many times (see The “China Excuse” for inaction and The U.S.-China Suicide Pact on Climate).

But as I noted in my post on Steven Chu’s confirmation hearing for energy secretary, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) made some worrisome remarks on the subject. Our very own David Lewis transcribed the exchange in the comments (here). I’m going to repost it below because Bayh is a thoughtful moderate who certainly understands the climate issue.

First, however, let me make a few comments. We have no chance to stabilize CO2 concentrations at 450 ppm (let alone 350), if China does not agree to cap its carbon emissions by 2020 (see “Must-read IEA report explains what must be done to avoid 6°C warming“). Right now, however, China seems to be willfully pursuing planetary self-destruction (see “China announces plan to single-handedly finish off the climate“).

The international negotiation process that led to the Kyoto Protocol — and that is supposed to culminate in another deal in Copenhagen at the end of this year — is for all intents and purposes in a deep coma, even if most of the participants don’t realize that (see “Obama can’t get a global climate treaty ratified, so what should he do instead? Part 1“). Indeed, the only thing that could possibly revive it is China agreeing to a cap by no later than 2020. That alone means Obama’s top international priority this year must not be Copenhagen, but rather China. Whether or not Obama needs some action by China to get a U.S. bill passed, his entire presidency and the fate of the planet rest on whether he can in fact get a China deal (see “What will make Obama a great president, Part 2: A climate deal with China“).

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Let me go further here, based in part on Bayh’s remarks. I think it is rather obvious that if China simply refuses to agree to any strong emissions constraints sometime during Obama’s (hopefully) two terms in office, than even if we had passed a climate bill in this country, the political support for the kind of carbon dioxide prices needed to achieve meaningful reductions by 2020 would just fade away. Second, I think it is even more obvious that the climate bill we could pass in this country would be considerably stronger if we could in fact negotiate a strong, bilateral GHG agreement with China (or trilateral with China and the E.U.) — though presumably the Chinese side of things would be contingent on a U.S. bill passing.

I do not want to be misunderstood here: It is more than reasonable to argue, as I have repeatedly, that the U.S. should try to pass a bill first — and such a bill may be the key to unlocking Chinese action. But Bayh’s comments in his exchange with Chu suggest that may not work politically:

Senator Bayh: I’d like to follow up on the last question that Senator Wyden asked you, about China and you know the importance and your stated belief that it’s important, indeed essential, to include developing nations, particularly China and India in any regime of CO2 reduction. And I think you said that the US will take the first step. And hopefully China will follow. You know, we’ll have to relook at it if they don’t. It’s my honest conviction that that approach will not be enacted by the US Congress. Simply trusting China to – you know, they have their own internal needs to have high rates of growth. They’ve been proven to be willing to sacrifice just about any other concern to maintain that high rate of growth, to maintain domestic political stability. And they don’t have a great track record frankly in abiding by some of the other agreements, particularly honoring intellectual property rights, other things. And so a skeptic might say, we’re going to be going through dislocations here that will affect our economy, consumers, other things. The American people would make great sacrifices. You’d have to really wonder about whether China would go along. And you know, people have to cast votes on these things. and that probably won’t be good enough to get the job done. So I would really and I’ve raised this with hopefully the secretary to be currently Senator Clinton, hopefully Secretary of State Clinton, about the need to engage in robust diplomacy, before we come to Congress with a global warming initiative, because it’s really going to – we’re going to need to buy in in the front if this thing is going to work

Dr. Chu: Actually I agree with that completely. Just so you know, perhaps this would put you more at ease with what I said. As you know I was co-chair of this report sponsored by the InterAcademy Council. That’s a council that represents over a hundred academies of science around the world. It’s a report called “Lighting the Way” and how one transitions to a sustainable energy. And in that report, we said quite clearly that all the countries, developed and developing countries, have to be part of the solution. Now, and I agree that this is a touchy diplomatic, economic, multidimensional problem. And …

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Sen. Bayh: Dr. to put you — I was not ill at ease with what you said. I simply — this is an important issue. We both believe that. So because it’s an important issue, we have to make sure it’s going to work. And without China participating, it’s not going to work, and I don’t think it will get enacted. And a skeptic viewing their past behavior would have to say that’s going to be a heavy lift. So, in a way that is, you know, verifiable and transparent. It’s just going to be very hard to get them there. And so I think we’re going to have to focus on that component early on in this process. And that’s beyond your bailiwick, but since you were asked about it and responded. I was not — I just want to emphasize that point: if we’re going to get this job done, we got to focus on that. And in my estimation, it’s going to be difficult, and frankly, I’m a little skeptical about whether they’ll ever get there in a way that is, you know, because of the political dynamic within their own country. But let’s give it a shot. Let’s see. Let’s do our best. Perhaps we can. I think its well worth the effort.”

Read it more than once. It’s a tad confusing, but, in the end, sobering stuff.

I believe the Obama administration, led by Clinton and Chinese-American Chu (and possibly a specially designated high-level envoy), should pursue a very aggressive dual track of negotiations with China and negotiations with Congress. Then they are going to have to make a very tough call some time later this year or early next year. I believe they must pass a U.S. climate bill by mid-2010 — global warming is simply too important an issue to defer beyond that. If they have failed to move the Chinese — or if the Chinese refuse to make any commitments until they see U.S. action — then they have to move forward with the best bill they can pass alone.

But if the Chinese are prepared to make a serious commitment — and no doubt it would take many months of nego
tiations to find out how serious and then to develop a deal — then that could be crucial to getting a truly serious climate bill passed. Progressives certainly don’t want Obama to burn through all of the domestic political capital needed to achieve climate legislation merely to end up with an unserious bill like the one the now- irrelevant U.S. climate action partnership just proposed (see “CAP-and-degrade“).

Based on my conversations with Hill staffers and others — and the not-so-subtle tea leaves being published in the media — I doubt there will be a U.S. climate bill passed in 2009. Personally, I now think 2010 may be a better idea anyway, but only if the Obama administration takes a variety of specific actions in 2009. What those actions are will be the subject of part 2.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.