8 lessons from a climate change tour of the US

From Washington to Hawaii: It’s no use waiting for consensus, cowboys don’t get it and change isn’t easy, even in paradise
Capitol Hill, where compromise is a dirty word (Flickr/0105686)

Capitol Hill, where compromise is a dirty word (Flickr/0105686)

By Alastair Harper

As the world heads towards a global climate deal in Paris this December, the US will be key.

Despite president Barack Obama’s enthusiasm for climate action on the world stage, carbon cutting policies are fiercely disputed at home. Across the 50 states, attitudes vary widely.

Here are eight things I learned on a climate change tour.

1. Ignoring consensus is getting things done

There will be plenty of bluster when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalises its rule on restricting greenhouse gas pollution in a month or so. Oklahoma has already voted to ban the state from implementing the EPA’s rule.

One environmental lawyer told me he expects that “within an hour of the rule coming out there’ll be organisations filing litigation.” But beyond the shouting, if a state doesn’t do its own plan, the EPA will do it for them.

The Republicans could not have been rubbed up the wrong way more by this horrifically federal, undemocratic, approach. But, by ignoring consensus, Obama has got things done.

2. The US intends to win in Paris

The US is, as one of its climate negotiators put it, going “all in” to get a global deal. Anyone following the G7 could see that for themselves. Similarly, it knows what it wants in Paris, with a clarity starkly absent in the UK’s Number 10.

Obama and secretary of state John Kerry see the role of a successful deal as being to “inspire, enable and prod” more domestic action around the world.

If the best way of doing that is through a long term goal with five-yearly ratchets around a transparent and potentially legal framework, then that’s what they’ll advocate.

To no one’s surprise, they prefer politically binding to legally binding, but they will support anything legally enabling that falls short of the deal being a treaty requiring ratification in the US Senate.

3. Republicans need an exit strategy

Compromise may be a dirty word, but it seems that many Republicans are aware that outright climate scepticism is unsustainable.

Emphasising heavily that they were speaking in confidence, one Republican staffer admitted to me that they urgently needed an exit strategy for their climate position and that there had been a huge change in Republican views over the past 16 months.

They hate Obama’s over use of executive powers to deal with this problem, but they hope to distinguish this from the problem itself. Climate change is a reality to most Republicans, but “the wingnuts are the only ones that get on television.”

Vermont: what if a dairy could also generate power? (Flickr/Kim Davies)

Vermont: what if a dairy could also generate power? (Flickr/Kim Davies)

4. Individual states show leadership

There is no typical America or American, but Vermont makes a particular effort to be untypical.

The offices of Vermont’s biggest utility company, Green Mountain Power, remind me of the Greenpeace offices in Islington. Open plan, with nuts and berries available free to pick at, the walls are decorated in green, with infographic warnings of the impact of climate change.

This hyper-progressive state shows what happens when the public and local businesses push those in power on green policy. They experiment with what works and what doesn’t: what happens if an energy efficiency charge is put on all electric bills? What if the dairy industry was also an energy industry? The whole state is basically a giant environmental think tank with a budget of $5 billion.

5. It’s Republicans vs the pope

The pope’s encyclical on climate change coincided with part of our trip. Seven potential Republican candidates are Catholic, the big three being Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Rick Santorum. And a Catholic candidate for the presidency cannot be beholden to the Vatican, they must show that he or she knows who the boss is – not the pope, but the American public.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that Jeb Bush, a practising Catholic for 20 years, said, ahead of the encyclical, “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope. I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

Polling shows that the American people are not climate sceptics. American Catholics are not climate sceptics. Even a large base of Republican voters are not climate sceptics. However, the base that will select and advocate for a Republican president are climate sceptics, in far greater numbers.

Cowboys see only the costs of climate action (Flickr/Meags)

Cowboys see only the costs of climate action (Flickr/Meags)

6. The cowboys don’t get it

Many Americans facing the reality of extreme weather feel disengaged from the processes of solving it. In Colorado we met Don Brown, a wealthy farmer with oil and gas interests.

He concedes that funny things have been happening with the weather, that they are in drought and it is affecting his farming community.

Yet Don and his fellow farmers see only pain in dealing with climate change:“My trucks have got to get their engines refitted now so that the air they put out is cleaner than the air that goes in. That cost me $140,000 – and for what?”

It seems all cost and no benefit: expensive changes for no visible outcome except a miniscule contribution to a global, invisible problem.

Hawaii: sunshine is free, but grid reinforcements are not (Flickr/Justin De La Ornellas)

Hawaii: sunshine is free, but grid reinforcements are not (Flickr/Justin De La Ornellas)

7. Change isn’t easy, even in paradise

Hawaii has serious ambitions to act on climate change. Shortly before my visit, the State government passed legislation committing to achieving 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2045; and its renewables policy has been changed from a sustainability focus to one of economic development.

This is because electricity in Hawaii is the most expensive of any state in America which is unsurprising, given it is the most isolated State in the Union.

However, the transition is not without its challenges; despite the widespread optimism and ambition, Oahu’s solar is over-productive and saturates the grid.

The population of the Big Island itself is small, and must fund the considerable cost of the network via their bills, so they pay the highest prices for electricity.

Hooking up the Big Island to Oahu would reduce the cost of the grid and stop it being saturated by solar, but no-one sees this as being likely any time soon.

8. No man is an island

I went to the US to learn about what it is doing from politicians, businesses and scientists; but I travelled with twenty-one people of twenty nationalities. I learnt from them about some distinct challenges to decarbonisation around the world.

In Ghana, it is persuading the private sector to offer capital at a low enough interest rate to support renewable investment. In Trinidad and Tobago, it’s acknowledging that the national economy’s reliance on fossil fuels will not last in the long term, and starting the transition to new industries. South Africa has been in the grip of load-shedding (or blackouts) for most of the year, which has been an opportunity to push the renewable mix.

Like Hawaii and Vermont, each of these countries had their own problems, solutions and expertise. They weren’t waiting for a mythical ‘magic moment’ to start acting, they already are. But everyone believed that more can be achieved together than alone, so we all shared a wholehearted hope for good agreement at the UN conference in Paris this year.

Alastair Harper is head of politics at Green Alliance. He recently participated in the US State Department’s International Visitors Leadership Programme on climate change. For more on his trip, read the Green Alliance blog.

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