Climate change solutions were battered by the recession and political shifts have pushed the issue to the sidelines of the US energy debate, while international climate talks remain mired in the same arguments that have derailed consensus for years.

That was the message from speakers at the US Association of Energy Economists conference October 11 in Washington, DC. In the US, they say the only climate-related action in the next few years will probably come from the Environmental Protection Agency, while internationally, there’s no sign of any progress for December’s UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Durban, South Africa.

Margot Anderson of the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank said there is “no national bipartisan narrative on energy and climate” in the current political landscape. While the 2009 stimulus program supplied $42 billion for climate-related research and projects, now Congress is cutting DOE programs.

Dallas Burtraw of Resources for the Future said states and localities are key players in climate change issues, since they control land use and implement many environmental rules under the US system of “environmental federalism.” At issue now is whether states will be leaders in climate change, like California and the northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or will be pre-empted and stopped by federal fiat.

Stephen Eule of the US Chamber of Commerce Institute for 21st Century Energy said the EPA’s pending regulations tightening limits on pollutants like sulfur, nitrogen and mercury will also cut carbon.

He said the 2009 Waxman-Markey bill, at 1,400 pages, was far too complex to be workable. Cap and trade only works by making energy more expensive, he said, and that’s “bad for the economy.”

Burtraw said there is no economic gain if energy is nominally cheap but has a “hidden tax” of negative health effects.

Internationally, Burtraw noted that much of the $100 billion in climate aid promised by the US at Copenhagen by 2020 was to come from the private market purchasing carbon off-sets in emerging nations. “That will not happen without cap and trade,” he warned.

Eule said the most important number for climate negotiations is 67 – the number of US Senators required to ratify any new US treaty commitment. The developed nations in the Kyoto Protocol are balking at extending their carbon-cutting commitments unless the US and China both adopt parallel commitments. The US has always rejected Kyoto, and China contends it is a developing nation with no obligation to take on carbon cuts.

The developed and developing nations remain at loggerheads over climate adaptation and mitigation aid, with some developing nations demanding 0.5-3% of developed nations’ gross domestic product – “a wealth transfer that no Western government will agree to,” Eule said.
“Essentially, the talks are stuck,” he said, not just for the upcoming Durban meeting but for the foreseeable future.

A related factor, said David Greene of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is the public’s being led to believe that there is no scientific consensus on climate change. In fact, he said, that consensus is “overwhelming,” but a “deliberate attempt to misinform the public” has been “a success.”

Eule said there had also been deliberate misinformation by climate advocates about the scale and difficulty of what has to be done to reduce emissions enough to make a difference.

Anderson said “the jury is still out” on whether many “green” measures will prove to be job creators or not in the long run. “That’s why we’re struggling,” she said.

Photo Caption: Former US Vice-President and environmental activist Al Gore speaks during an environmental summit in Guayaquil, Ecuador on March 17, 2011.