America’s New Direction

As an American citizen attending climate treaty talks on behalf of NRDC, for too many years I’ve had to endure watching my country’s government play the role of “Dr. No.” Just wait, I’d tell people from other countries, things are going to change in the U.S. You can’t blame them for having been skeptical.

But what a change this time. I arrived in Bali on the heels of two historic votes in the U.S. Congress. So at a press conference on Friday, and at other meetings, I’ve been able to bring tangible proof that there’s new leadership in the U.S., that the Bush administration does not really speak for us anymore, and that America really is changing course.

I talked about the sweeping new energy bill that House of Representatives passed 235-181. As you can see here, the bill would raise new car fuel economy standards to at least 35 miles per gallon by 2020; expand use of renewable motor fuels, with an emphasis on low-emitting “cellulosic” biofuels and with safeguards for our air, water, and land; require electricity companies to provide at least 15 percent of their power from renewable sources like wind and solar by 2020; set new energy-saving standards for light bulbs and appliances; and take tax breaks away from the oil industry (which hardly needs a helping hand with oil at more than $90 a barrel) and puts the money to faster deployment of energy efficiency and renewable energy.

To be sure, the bill has hit temporary roadblocks in the Senate, where Republicans are determined to defend the oil company tax breaks and oppose renewable electricity standards. While Democratic leaders may have to move those parts separately, it’s likely that before New Year’s eve the full Congress will approve the new fuel economy and renewable fuels standards, and new lighting and appliance energy efficiency standards. These are big changes after years of bad energy bills.

Also last week, the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act was approved 11-8 by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. This is the first economy-wide global warming bill to make it through any committee in Congress. The bill sets a cap on sources representing 86 percent of U.S. global warming pollution. The bill cuts emissions of covered sources from 2005 levels by 4 percent by 2012, 19 percent by 2020, and 71 percent by 2050. It also provides for more reductions from sources outside the cap, such as forests and agriculture. This historic vote builds on state and local action, court decisions, and new business-environmental partnerships. What is happening now was unthinkable just one year ago.

What impact do these votes in Congress have on climate talks in Bali?

Diplomats and nongovernmental participants from other countries have been aching for signs of change from the U.S. Now they can see the shape of American policy to come, once President Bush turns out the White House lights at the end of 2008. Now they can see how lame the ducks on the U.S. delegation really are.

Here in Bali, by the end of next week countries are likely to kick off a two-year negotiation to agree on faster cuts in heat-trapping pollution after 2012. The deadline is December 2009. The U.S. presidential election comes in November next year – just about the half-way point in these talks. So in the second half of this football game, we’ll be fielding a different team.

Based on what’s happening back home now, I’m really hopeful the new team will have a very different game plan. Then the United States can resume its rightful role as a leader and a partner in the global effort to avoid climate catastrophe.

And, based on my first few days in Bali, Oh! how welcome that change will be.