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Archive for Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bali meeting will shift ballots

December 12, 2007

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American presidential campaigns often are changed by events in remote locales such as Davenport, Iowa, or Laconia, N.H.

But Bali?

Yet, the international meeting that began there Dec. 3 to decide what should replace the Kyoto agreement that expires in 2012, and how much pain various national economies must absorb to combat global warming, could become a big deal in the 2008 campaign.

This may come as a surprise to those who think that global warming is a one-sided issue on which no political figure wants to be seen as standing in the way of concerted worldwide action to save the planet.

But it's a far cry from everyone agreeing on the need to save the planet, to reaching a consensus on who should shoulder the resulting financial burden in a highly competitive global economy that will be required to reduce emissions.

Perhaps the most pressing political question is how American voters will feel about proposals that would force the United States to limit its emissions if its major economic competitors - specifically China and India - were unwilling to do the same.

Those two nations, which boast the world's fastest growing economies and whose competition has cost millions of American jobs, have made clear they will not agree to any steps that would slow down their rise in living standards.

Also involved in the negotiation is the question of whether the industrialized nations - Europe, the United States and Japan - which have prospered and at the same time created much of the pollution thought to be raising world temperatures should bear a disproportionate burden, even if these days they are not creating nearly as large a share of the pollution.

The mentality behind the Kyoto agreement - which the United States did not sign but Europe eagerly adopted - was that wealthy nations that had created most of the problem needed to do a penance by shouldering a greater burden.

The bottom line is that steps taken to curb industrial emissions cost money that inevitably is passed along to consumers in higher prices. If U.S. products are forced to absorb costs and those made by nations not taking similar steps are not, then in a global economy American products will be less competitive.

How to juggle a nation's economic and environmental interests is a real dilemma. Even with a newly heightened public sense of concern about rising global temperatures, it is nowhere near a one-sided matter when it comes to presidential politics.

And, make no mistake about it; the issue could become a very big one once the party nominations are settled.

There will be huge pressure from environmental groups to adopt whatever proposals are made by the European and underdeveloped nations, which the Bush administration is unlikely to back.

Democrats may see this as an opportunity to paint the eventual Republican nominee as out of touch with what they see as the reality of climate change, but the issue could become a political tightrope if the focus turns to specific remedies.

For example, calls for sharply raising mileage requirements for cars, which could make U.S.-made vehicles even less price competitive, could be quite unpopular in key states such as Michigan and Ohio, where auto manufacturing is a major part of the economy.

A call for creation of carbon markets that would force companies to pay to clean up the emissions they create might be politically unattractive in other manufacturing states. Then there is nuclear power, a technology favored because it does not produce greenhouse gases, but which evokes emotional opposition among many voters.

It is worth remembering that the U.S. decision not to ratify the Kyoto agreement was bipartisan. In fact, the U.S. Senate by a 95-0 margin in 1997 passed a resolution rejecting the Kyoto outline after a Clinton administration study warned it could cause a decline in gross domestic product of $60 billion to $397 billion annually and significantly raise energy prices.

Now, clearly today there is much more support among the American people for dealing with - and making sacrifices for - the climate than there was a decade ago.

Nevertheless, the specific plans to deal with global warming that will begin to come with the Bali meeting have the potential to scramble the U.S. political deck.

- Peter A. Brown is the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

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