Another Health-Care Casualty: Cap and Trade

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Lester Lefkowitz / Corbis

Environmentalists were ecstatic when the House of Representatives passed the carbon cap-and-trade bill, led by Democratic Representatives Henry Waxman and Edward Markey, in June. Certainly, the legislation to limit national greenhouse-gas emissions could have been stronger, but the very possibility that the House would pass any such bill would have been unimaginable a year ago. And the timing was perfect. With do-or-die climate negotiations set for the U.N.'s global-warming summit in Copenhagen at the end of the year, the U.S. needed to show the world that it was ready to act on carbon emissions. All that was left was passage by the Senate.

But that's the problem. Despite hopes — and promises by the Democratic leadership — that the Senate would tackle cap-and-trade legislation this fall, it's looking increasingly as if the U.S. will go to Copenhagen with no national carbon caps in place. Senate majority leader Harry Reid told reporters on Sept. 15 that the Senate might have to wait to act on cap and trade until after tackling health care and banking reform. "We still have next year to complete things if we have to," he said.

Reid's spokesperson backed off those comments the next day, indicating that the schedule hadn't yet been set, but with the health-care debate threatening to stretch from now until the end of the world, it's becoming increasingly difficult to see how cap and trade could be finalized before the Copenhagen summit begins in December. And given how controversial cap and trade remains even among many Democrats in the Senate — Republicans remain almost unanimously opposed — action in the election year of 2010 might be even tougher.

The more immediate concern will be the negotiations in Copenhagen. Since Reid's comments, environmental groups have been getting calls from foreign embassies suddenly unsure of where the U.S. stands on a global deal. What they want to avoid is a replay of the negotiations over the Kyoto Protocol back in 1997 — the U.S., led by then Vice President Al Gore, agreed to long-term carbon-emission reductions, only to be repudiated later 95-0 by the U.S. Senate.

Even though President Barack Obama has taken almost a 180° turn from former President George W. Bush on climate change, Obama's negotiators will be hamstrung if Congress can't deliver emissions cuts in time. The White House can point to unilateral steps it has taken — like the Sept. 15 move to place the first-ever national limits on greenhouse-gas emissions from automobiles — but that might not be enough. "U.S. negotiators have made it pretty clear they won't get ahead of the stated will of Congress," says Jonathan Lash, the president of the World Resources Institute. "Without action from the U.S., it's hard to imagine a comprehensive agreement in Copenhagen."

As it stands, the chances of a new global deal being achieved in Copenhagen — one that would succeed the expiring Kyoto Protocol and include both the U.S. and major developing nations like China — are already looking dim. There are still major differences between the developed and developing nations over how the responsibility for cutting carbon should be divided — and how much the rich world should devote to poor countries that will need to adapt to climate change. "It's going to be a very difficult situation at Copenhagen," says Annie Petsonk, the international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will try to get the negotiation process jump-started next week in New York City, when he hosts a daylong session dedicated to climate change with heads of state. But Washington — and, ultimately, President Obama — still holds the key. As he told delegates at a California climate summit last November, when he was still President-elect: "Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high."