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National Journal, November 30, 2010

Cancun Expert Blog: Solutions Are Within Reach
By Kassie Siegel

Meaningful measures to cut carbon pollution and build a profoundly better world can seem distant in the wake of the disappointment at Copenhagen last year and the recent election of a number of new U.S. congressional representatives who deny the basic science climate change. But progress is within reach. And while no one predicts that necessary, binding and science-based greenhouse pollution reductions will materialize by the end of the Cancun climate summit, progress required to achieve such an agreement in the future will almost certainly be accomplished there and move us one step closer to that end. 

First, progress will be made on furthering a global understanding of the need to reduce carbon dioxide concentrations to below 350 parts per million to avert catastrophic impacts. Already, more than 100 countries have endorsed this goal. More will likely do so in Cancun, and further clarity on what such a goal actually means and pathways to achieving it will be revealed, debated and refined in Cancun.

Second, the negotiations have become a focal point for the growth of a global movement for real change, for climate justice, and it is this grass-roots movement that will ultimately bridge the gap between the scientific imperative for deep and rapid greenhouse pollution reductions and today’s accepted “political reality” in which the biggest polluters still exercise vast power over policy. In Cancun, climate activists from around the world will converge and continue to organize and build the networks that can overcome the astronomical spending by big polluters who aim to obscure the science and impede progress. There is no question that the grassroots movement is far larger, more dynamic and better informed than at any time in the past, and that this will be channeled into political pressure for action.  

Finally, notwithstanding the hollow “Copenhagen Accord,” the centrality of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) itself will be re-affirmed by the very presence of all of the parties attending the meeting in Cancun. The climate crisis is a global problem and there is no substitute for the UNFCCC institution. Cancun, even if nothing seemingly concrete comes of it, will hopefully return us to a course toward a global agreement to be achieved next year at the UNFCCC meeting in South Africa.

And as to Chairman Markey’s second question, the good news is that the U.S. already has the tools it needs to convince the world we’re serious about tackling climate change by rapidly and decisively reducing greenhouse pollution.  We are incredibly fortunate to have the strongest and best domestic environmental laws in the world, and they can be used today to successfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Foremost among these laws is the Clean Air Act, which has a proven track record of effectively and efficiently reducing air pollution. The Clean Air Act works.  For four decades, this seminal law has protected the air we breathe, saved thousands of lives each year and generally improved public health. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the economic benefits of Clean Air Act regulation have exceeded the costs by about 42 times. Although it was written decades ago, the Clean Air Act can be deployed today without changes to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse pollution, as described in detail here.

Moreover, while the need for ratification by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate for a traditional treaty to take effect is often cited as a barrier to emissions reduction commitments by the U.S. in the international talks, the fact is that the president has several sources of legal authority to negotiate an international emissions reduction agreement without a traditional treaty, as discussed more here

Thus, with leadership from the president and from those in Congress who acknowledge the science and recognize the gravity of the situation, rapid forward progress on climate can quickly become reality. The president and the EPA should move forward boldly with the greenhouse pollution reductions they have already begun under the Clean Air Act, and should expand their efforts to utilize all of the Clean Air Act’s successful programs, including setting a national pollution cap of no more than 350 parts per million for carbon dioxide. Congress should reject all attempts to gut the Clean Air Act by exempting greenhouse emissions, whether in the form of standalone attacks on EPA authority or as part of climate legislation. While a climate bill is long overdue, it must build upon, and not roll back, our existing successful foundation of environmental law. All that’s needed to convince the world we are not in denial about climate change is political courage and leadership from the president and his supporters in Congress.

Copyright 2010 by National Journal Group Inc.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton