By Scott Ritter
While pundits and politicians wrestle with immediate issues such as the economic meltdown, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, global climate change has emerged as one of the most critical and contentious security issues of the 21st century. The new director of national intelligence, Adm. Dennis Blair, has cited rising temperatures, combined with an increase in weather-related natural disasters, as a major facilitator of governmental instability worldwide, especially in underdeveloped regions. Issues of poverty, infrastructure degradation, social and political collapse and environmental decay will all be exacerbated by global warming. While the crises stemming from climate change will initially manifest themselves most critically in regions of the world already impacted by political, social and economic turmoil, there is a pronounced threat of spillover as entire populations migrate from the stricken regions into areas where humans have a better chance of survival. The severity and longevity of the consequences of severe weather-related events will make current mechanisms of containing and mitigating these crises inadequate. The scope and scale of these massive migrations would be unprecedented in modern history, as would the ensuing conflicts over basic resources such as food and water, not to mention energy.
The potential catastrophe that global climate change could unleash on America makes every other foreign policy crisis pale in comparison. Recognizing the importance of proactive, as opposed to reactive, policy to head off these looming problems, President Obama has crafted a national policy designed to address the principal underlying cause of global climate change: greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas reduction is one of three pillars on which Obama has constructed his ambitious energy plan, the other two being economic stimulus and increased energy security. In the recent economic stimulus bill signed by the president, some $50 billion of a $789 billion total stimulus package will be set aside for programs related to efficient and renewable energy. This will be followed by an outlay of $150 billion over 10 years for investments in projects related to clean energy, efficient power generation and usage, and improved domestic oil and gas production.
Increased domestic energy production is linked with a broader concept of increased energy security, the stated objectives of which are to reduce American dependency on imported oil from the Middle East and Venezuela, which together account for 33 percent of the United States’ daily consumption, 10 million barrels. Reducing or eliminating this dependency is seen as a mechanism for freeing up American diplomatic and economic options in these critical regions, providing U.S. leaders with more flexibility in crafting solutions deemed to be in the national interest, and not so heavily tied to the need to guarantee continued access to these important sources of energy. But increased domestic energy production will not, in and of itself, deal with the pressing issue of greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, void of a plan to manage greenhouse gas emissions, any massive effort to increase domestic energy production could result in even higher emissions.
The Obama administration does have a plan, in the form of an innovative, ambitious and as such contentious national “cap and trade” system for managing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Under the plan, the government would establish a national standard for greenhouse gas emissions by various industries, representing a “cap” intended to achieve a reduction of 80 percent by 2050. Industries operating below this “cap” would have “credits” that could then be traded—through for-profit “auctions”—to industries unable to meet the standard.
The Obama administration believes this cap-and-trade proposal will not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States but will also generate federal income from the taxation of the revenue obtained from the trading of credits. This revenue would then be invested by the government in new clean energy projects and initiatives. There is even an international aspect of the domestic cap-and-trade system: Heavy U.S. emitters of greenhouse gases would have the option of offsetting their domestic quotas by investing in low-carbon energy projects in the developing world. There are several major obstacles in the way of turning the cap-and-trade concept into reality. First, there is the issue of establishing a domestic framework for defining and enforcing the greenhouse emission caps. The industrial infrastructure that would be most impacted by the caps is arguing for a single national standard, as opposed to caps being set at the state level. Another key issue is the cap itself, how it would be defined, and what benchmarks would be set for implementation of the 80 percent reduction. Until these questions are answered, new energy production initiatives in the United States are frozen.
Second, there is a need to integrate the ambitious American domestic policy into an overarching international policy of controlling greenhouse gas emissions. President Obama has committed to the creation of a Global Energy Forum, which would comprise the core G-8 countries plus major developing nations such as Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa. The forum would focus exclusively on global energy and environmental issues. Obama has also committed to re-engage the United States in the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is working to build a new global regime of commitments to replace the existing Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.
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