I’m going to go and eat some worms

March 28, 2007

Excerpts only. For the complete text, see the original article at Global Public Media.

For the last month, the words “China” and “India” have floated over and through the House and Senate hearings on energy and climate change.

Why should the United States, members asked, take any action on climate change when China and India weren’t doing anything about their CO2 emissions? With China and India growing so fast, their increasing CO2 emissions would overwhelm whatever cuts the United States was able to make.

Why should we put our industries at an unfavorable disadvantage with their foreign competitors by making them pay more for reducing their CO2 emissions?

On Tuesday, the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality finally took the China/India issue straight on. (Note that nine times out of ten, subcommittee members only mention China; but India is also a major potential problem.) The hearing was unusually far-ranging, touching on the economy, jobs, international law, the history of Chinese negotiating on international treaties, forest fire policies, tearing down dams, and the unavoidable question of whether a country with very high per capita CO2 emmissions can “wear the white hat” in talks with China and India, where per capita CO2 emissions are so low. There was a blizzard of statistics (see below).

On the one side were the Republicans. In their view of the world, dealing with climate change will cause us to incur terrible expenses for the sake of what Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) referred to as “some amorphous benefit some time in the future.”

…The Democrats at today’s hearings expressed some of the same cautions about China and India that the Republicans were raising, but were open to discussing whether there might be merits in the U.S. taking leadership, regardless of what China and India were pledged to do.

Most of the panelists supported some form of cap-and-trade system for creating a market in carbon and setting a price on carbon emissions. And while the Republicans frequently referred to themselves as supporters of free markets, in their questions to the witnesses, they were remarkably wary, even fearful, of what would happen if the U.S. put a cap-and-trade system to work.

…Annie Petsonk, International Counsel for Environmental Defense, acknowledged the difficulty of designing legal frameworks that sovereign nations will want to obey. But she insisted that the Congress “has the tools to engage them [developing countries] or to level the playing field if they don’t engage. We do not have a tool that will make them do what we do. But I can guarantee you that if we don’t take the first step, they will not.”[Emphasis added]

…Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), chair of the subcommittee, said that one way to deal with whether China and India were going to cooperate would be to set up “something in the nature of an off-ramp.” The U.S. would announce its targets and begin reducing emissions. But at some point, “if we do not have buy-in from the developing countries, with mandatory programs, then our program would not take effect.”

The witnesses were horrified by Boucher’s suggestion, pointing out that the existence of an off-ramp would create even more uncertainty in the minds of business executives trying to make long-range energy investment decisions.

Petsonk compared the off-ramp to the childhood lament, “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I’m going to go and eat some worms.” In her view, American industry would be doing some unnecessary worm-eating because of the “enormous uncertainty” in the marketplace. Morgan Stanley’s Holzschuh noted that the private sector needs to start committing trillions (not billions, trillions) of dollars now. The lack of rules, or the possibility that the rules might change midstream was bad: “the off-ramp is particularly troubling.

Tags: Energy Policy, Industry, Politics