Bad Climate for Global Warming

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies announced that 2010 had registered as the hottest year on record. Nothing new here: nine of the last 10 years have been among the warmest ever.

The news highlighted one of Washington's biggest failures over the last two years: its inability to advance climate legislation. It was also a grim reminder that things could get worse. Some crucial policy areas have always been neglected and some initiatives stalled. But rarely has a first-order concern like the nation's climate and energy policy actually regressed -- and so dramatically as we've seen since the last presidential election.

Not long ago, it appeared likely that the United States would take meaningful action to mitigate climate change. In the 2008 presidential campaign, both Barack Obama and John McCain touted plans to limit carbon emissions under a cap-and-trade scheme. Even Sarah Palin supported the idea. Much of the business community did, too. Adding momentum was the recent Supreme Court ruling, in Massachusetts vs. Environmental Protection Agency, that required the EPA, under the Clean Air Act, to regulate harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Lawmakers, it was presumed, would take the matter into their own hands rather than cede that authority.

Of course, this didn't happen. Over the strenuous objections of Republicans and coal-state Democrats, the House of Representatives passed a cap-and trade bill in 2009 that met an ignominious death in the Senate. Along the way, cap-and-trade -- originally a conservative idea -- came to be vilified as "cap and tax'' and regarded by a substantial part of the conservative base as a form of fascist oppression. Today, fewer Americans believe in the reality of global warming than did so two years ago, and many took out their wrath last November on Democrats who'd supported a climate bill.

But this doesn't capture the full scale of the setback. Since that debacle, momentum in Congress has shifted strongly against climate-change legislation. If you want to frighten one of the remaining Democrats, suggest that he or she take another shot at passing cap-and-trade.

There's still the EPA. When both parties favored cap-and-trade, this option was viewed as the less desirable one. The agency could limit greenhouse gas emissions, but not through a system as flexible and efficient as cap-and-trade, which included simple improvements like building-efficiency standards that lay beyond the agency's remit. EPA regulations would thus be less effective.

The cap-and-trade bill that passed the House aimed to reduce emissions 17 percent by 2020 from their 2005 levels. A World Resources Institute study found that the most aggressive implementation of EPA regulations would only reduce emissions by 12 percent in that time frame. Scientists say reductions of 36-48 percent would be necessary to halt global warming. "Having EPA set carbon-pollution reductions was everyone's second choice for slowing global warming,'' said Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. "It was like 'In Case of Congressional Gridlock Break Glass.' ''

Now, the backup plan is the only plan, and "aggressive'' regulations are off the table. Last year, the EPA issued a "tailoring rule'' signaling how it intended to proceed. The results in no way resembled the fears expressed by many detractors that a burdensome new system of regulations would be imposed on small businesses. Instead, the EPA will confine its attentions strictly to the largest polluters, such as power plants, oil refineries, and chemical manufacturers.

These modest steps won't do nearly as much to slow global warming as the other, broader plans. But because the battle has shifted from the legislative to the regulatory front, the EPA nonetheless finds itself under attack from the newly empowered Republicans. One of the first things they will do is try to block EPA from establishing pollution standards, possibly by denying funds or refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless the process is slowed or halted.

It's not clear whether they'll succeed. But given the heightened importance of stronger restrictions, environmentalists can't feel good about recent developments. Earlier this week, the Obama administration said it would focus on eliminating regulations, rather than strengthening them. That's probably an accurate reading of the political climate. But for the planet's climate, it's yet another blow.

Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.

Thumbnail image credit: Adrian Dennis/Getty Images