Too Late on Climate Change?

By Tom Neeley

With the upcoming U.N. Climate Change Conference in December, many hopes and fears have been pegged on the creation of a broad, comprehensive initiative similar to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. However, the downturn in the global economy has affected the willingness of many nations to jeopardize economic recovery efforts by saddling domestic industries with new emissions regulations that could put them at a disadvantage with competitors producing in less regulated nations.

While certainly China, which surpassed the U.S. as the top producer of greenhouse gases, and the EU member states will be key players to watch during the conference, The most interesting player to watch during the Copenhagen conference will be the U.S.

Being the only industrialized nation that failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. has been playing catch-up in addressing climate change. Presently, the Obama administration and the Senate are attempting to develop legislation addressing greenhouse gas emissions prior to Copenhagen, and earlier this month, the president signed an executive order outlining goals and requirements for the federal government to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. These actions follow the EPA’s declaration in April that carbon dioxide (along with methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride) is detrimental to the environment. This decision follows two years after the Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act (although, for some, the jury is still out).

These moves by the U.S. government follow a sea change in terms of public awareness about climate issues. Since Kyoto, public perceptions in the U.S. of climate change have become more informed and understood broadly across issues of national security, gas prices, and daily living. However from a policy perspective, there is still broad skepticism among Americans of the need for action on climate change.

Despite this new willingness of the U.S. government to address climate change, recent expectations for Copenhagen (especially among EU member states) have shifted toward sweeping incrementalism, inviting disappointment among advocates for bold action. But should a incremental approach be such a bad thing?

The Atlantic recently evaluated the effectiveness of environmental and energy policies in California that have developed in piecemeal since the 1970s. Still, these incremental (but highly successful) policy steps occurred over a span of 40 years.

Many scientists and studies, although offering sometimes conflicting estimations on the timetable of rising sea levels, increased carbon, and the reduction of polar ice caps, generally agree on the urgency of addressing the causes of these effects sooner rather than later. Some are fearful of an environmental point-of-no-return, at which the adverse effects of climate change become irreversible set.

Could it be, then, too late for incrementalism?

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