Lessons not to learn from US Congress

Guest post by Michael Davidson, China Climate Fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council

At the UN climate change conference in Tianjin, countries are still divided over how to make progress. A common theme in the first few days of closed meetings was the collective frustration that a balanced set of decisions at Cancun this November was being held hostage by an overburdened system. It is important to step back and realise, therefore, that the debate between action and process is neither new nor unique to climate change.

The United States has accumulated 200 years of procedural baggage in its legislative system designed to ensure inclusiveness and a balance between the many and the few. These include methods for checking the power of the president and for slowing down policy driven by populist pressures. As a fundamental part of the American political process, many are loath to question their utility or practicality despite the sometimes insurmountable roadblocks they throw up.

And, as the world painfully saw over the last two years of trying to pass climate and energy legislation in the Senate, this system has failed us. A handful of influential politicians stymied progress, abusing both formal and informal procedures to prolong debate and stall votes. George Packer of the New Yorker has written extensively on this topic. A recent report by the liberal think-tank Center for American Progress also provides a good overview of some of these rules. For example, a persistent minority can bring the US government to a stand-still simply by holding up uncontroversial nominations of federal judges.

Senators calling for a revision of the rules have come and gone, and the logjams that have built up are the worst ever. There is some hope that this issue will be taken up next January when the next session of Congress begins. These efforts, if successful, may have immediate effects on the prospects for comprehensive climate legislation.

President Barack Obama has recently reiterated that he will continue to work on climate in 2011, and this is certainly necessary in the long-run both to establish appropriate domestic incentives and to send an unequivocal signal to the international community. Obama is also pursuing other tracks, however, to ensure real and prompt progress. These include stationary source and vehicle emissions controls, appliance efficiency standards and a host of renewable energy incentives from the stimulus bill. A recentstudy shows that much of the 17% emissions reduction commitment can be met by these executive actions. The Fiscal Year 2011 budget proposal has also allocated significantly more money to climate financing than previous years.

In order to achieve some realistic and forward-looking outcomes in Cancun, the Tianjin conference needs to produce a manageable draft text. More than that, there needs to be renewed vigilance that actions speak louder than words. The UNFCCC, just like the US Congress, should not be a self-perpetuating body whose sole purpose is to discuss rather than to inspire action. And the deadline for acting is rapidly approaching.

You can follow NRDC’s team on the ground in Tianjin at Switchboard.