When it's 25 below zero, pipes are freezing, cars won't start and the utility meters are spinning so fast you can't read the numbers, most Montanans aren't worrying much about global warming. Likewise, if you ask your average Montana guy on the street what he thinks about Copenhagen, he's likely to tell you it's pretty good snoose—and then ask if you "can spare a dip." But in Copenhagen, Denmark, some 192 nations have kicked off the U.N.'s two-week climate change conference that many say is "the last best chance" to deal with global warming.
"The clock has ticked down to zero," Yvo de Boer, the U.N. climate chief told the worldwide delegates at the opening of the conference. "After two years of negotiations, the time has come to deliver."
What de Boer hopes to have delivered by the end of the much-ballyhooed conference is a complex array of measures to be taken by both industrialized and developing countries that will slow the pace of global warming through regulation, incentives and investment. It is a noble and challenging goal, but one that many already expect to fall far short of de Boer's expectations.
Just this week, for instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it has concluded that greenhouse gases are harmful to humans and will begin to take steps to deal with them. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that greenhouse gases can be regulated under the Clean Air Act and the EPA will now move forward to develop new regulations under that authority. The gases, especially carbon dioxide, are the main contributors to what a vast number of international scientists believe is causing the earth to be so much warmer than in recent history, and are primarily the products of combustion coming from automobiles, power plants, factories and many other sources.
The EPA's announcement, which cheered environmentalists, was likewise met with broad approval by the delegates to the convention. But here at home, the threats and propaganda have already begun to fly from both politicians and their cronies in the fossil fuel industries. While the EPA itself has pegged the projected cost of the regulatory measure to be about $60 billion, it also estimated that the benefits would amount to $250 billion.
But that's not how Thomas Donahue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a fierce critic of the EPA's efforts to regulate greenhouse gases sees it. "It will choke off growth by adding new mandates to virtually every major construction and renovation project," he says. Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, adds, "Such regulations would be intrusive, inefficient and excessively costly." The thinly veiled implication here is obvious: If industry is forced to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, any costs incurred will be passed directly on to already suffering consumers.
Indeed, so powerful is industry's influence in American politics that we were the only industrialized nation in the world to refuse to sign the initial climate change treaty—the Kyoto Protocol—which will expire in 2012. As most people know, the relationship between President George W. Bush and the oil industry basically precluded any acknowledgement of human-caused global warming, much less any steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
While President Bush is gone, it would be a mistake to think that industry's power has in some way been diminished. It hasn't. Although President Obama has taken a much more enlightened approach to climate change than his predecessor, it remains to be seen if the White House alone can break the industry stranglehold on Congress. As
a recent and disturbing example, Montana's own Max Baucus was the only Democrat to vote against a recent climate change bill in the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee. The vote, which came out 11-1, was unanimously boycotted by Republican committee members.
Even more troublesome, Baucus has already announced that he may amend the Clean Air Act to reduce emissions limitation targets.
"We cannot afford the unmitigated impacts of climate change but we also cannot afford the unmitigated effects of legislation," he says.
If you're wondering what Baucus might mean by that statement, just look at his fellow committee member and ranking Republican, Jim Inhofe, whose threats were more blunt: "This bill necessarily will raise the price of gasoline, electricity, food and just about everything else."
If this sounds a lot like Baucus' stance on the health care reform bill earlier this year, there may be a good reason. Namely, money. Just as Baucus was singled out for having taken millions of dollars from big pharmaceuticals, insurance and hospital industries, he is likewise connected by a campaign fund umbilical to the fossil-fuel industries.
According to campaign tracking organizations, the U.S. oil and gas industry spent $35 million, the coal industry spent $3.4 million and electric utilities dropped $20 million in campaign coffers last year. Baucus, who is one of the top 10 Senate recipients of oil-industry contributions, has received more than $195,000 since 2000 and has voted with the oil industry 67 percent of the time. He also took nearly $88,000 from coal companies the last two years.
Just as the health industry dropped millions to kill meaningful health care reform, the fossil fuel industry is spending freely to convince Congress—and Americans—that global warming regulation will be a costly blunder. And it's working. A recent Pew poll found that only one-third of Americans believe humans are causing global warming and of the 57 percent that believe the planet is getting warmer, only 33 percent believe it's human caused. That's significantly down from the past, with the greatest drop coming in the last year since President Obama has taken steps to address the issue.
Copenhagen may well be our "last best chance" on climate change. But here in the Last Best Place, these below-zero temperatures will likely kill more pine beetles than any amorphous goals coming out of Congress or Copenhagen—and that makes the shivering almost worthwhile.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.