It’s purely coincidental, but the timing of the UN Climate Change Conference in Lima (COP20 for short) and the passage of the continuing resolution/omnibus spending bill by the US Congress is a fitting display of two very different philosophies.
Island nations are looking for significant pledges (or better yet, actions) in order to preserve their countries’ existence. Rising sea levels are causing increased erosion, so some of these nations are watching their land disappear before their eyes. The US and China made a major announcement prior to COP20, when the US pledged to reduce emissions by 28% and China committed to peak emissions by 2030. President Obama also promised to give $3 billion to the UN Green Climate Fund, which is established to help developing countries adopt sustainable practices. These two actions gave COP20 some serious momentum from the outset.
It was most likely the serious commitment of these two superpowers that enabled any movement at COP20. As Sara Gutterman recently wrote, the “Lima Accord creates the much anticipated framework for a global treaty that can be signed next year in Paris by global leaders, requiring countries to submit to the UN over the next six months a detailed domestic policy plan to limit their greenhouse gas emissions, with transparent metrics, identifiable methods of verification, and measurable milestones”. To translate this into code parlance, there are a couple of different compliance paths: developed countries and developing countries. Predictably, the framework agreement falls short of what is really needed for emissions reductions, and it may get reduced even more in Paris next year, but at least it’s a step in the right direction… and it’s a step that hasn’t been taken in 20 years.
Now, compare the above progress to what transpired on the very same weekend in the US Congress. In another exercise of “governance by crisis”, they passed the 2015 Fiscal Year Omnibus Appropriations Bill. This 1,600+ page, $1.1 trillion dollar piece of legislation contains many last-minute policy riders. Left to debate on the floor, many of these would never pass. But in order to avoid yet another government shutdown, politicians hurriedly compromised (read: caved) on a variety of issues, from campaign finance reform to banking regulations to environmental protections. In the interest of brevity, we’ll keep our gaze confined to the environment. (At the end of this column, I’ll provide links to a couple of articles covering the various riders, including the environmentally-related. But if you want to read a sharp rebuke on the undoing of a Dodd-Frank provision, read Gregg Levine’s article. Wow.)
EPA – It is forbidden from regulating manure management systems, cow burps and farts. On the surface, this sounds like a gift, as I can’t imagine anyone truly wanting to deal with that every day. However, the agricultural industry is a major source of methane. To add insult to injury, the agency lost $60 million in funding for the next fiscal year, and Republicans are happy to tout that $2.2 billion has been cut from the EPA’s budget in the past 5 fiscal years. Unless staffers want to take pay cuts (hey, something is better than nothing), they may have to cut personnel back to 1989 levels.
Amtrak – Their funding ($1.39 billion) was untouched, yet they set a record for passengers.
US Fish & Wildlife – The agency wanted to put the greater sage-grouse and Gunnison sage-grouse on the endangered species list, but they are prevented from taking such preventive action. Apparently, the economic interests of Western energy companies (specifically, their drilling and mining activities) take priority over the existence of a species.
Department of Energy – The energy-sucking Edison bulbs received a stay of execution, because now DoE is not allowed to develop and enforce new energy-efficiency standards.
Transportation – There is no new funding for high-speed rail projects, nor can the department fund most of its current projects. However, Washington, DC’s subway and bus system got $150 million for improvements. (Where is Congress located again? Oh, yeah…) The silver lining is that $10.9 billion was set aside for transit programs around the country, “including the construction of new rail and rapid bus projects in California, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, North Carolina and Texas”.
UN Green Climate Fund – Remember that $3 billion the President pledged? Congress decided to break that promise by blocking the money. Senator and incoming chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee James Inhofe (R-OK) said, “The President’s climate change agenda has only siphoned precious taxpayer dollars away from the real problems facing the American people.”
Export-Import Bank – They were previously banned from loaning money for the construction of coal-fired power plants overseas, but not anymore! “The U.S.’s official export credit agency” is open for business.
Railroads – Congress set aside $3 million “to expand inspections along the roughly 14,000 miles of track used by trains hauling oil tankers”. For those scoring at home, that’s $0.04/foot of track. Feel safer yet?
As the world looks to the US to step up and lead on a pressing environmental challenge, Congress is giving indications it wants to step back. I can only hope we undergo a domestic course correction soon.
Helpful articles highlighting policy riders in the omnibus appropriations bill:
Deirdre Walsh, CNN - http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/10/politics/policy-riders-spending-bill/
 Ed O’Keefe, et al, of The Washington Post, December 10, 2014.http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2014/12/09/whats-in-the-spending-bill-we-skim-it-so-you-dont-have-to/
 “House Spending Bill Blocks US Funding for the UN’s Green Climate Fund” by Michael Bastich of The Daily Caller, December 10, 2014. http://dailycaller.com/2014/12/10/house-spending-bill-blocks-us-funding-for-the-uns-green-climate-fund/
 “How Congress Snuck Changes to U.S. Environmental Policy into the New Budget Bill” by Joshua A. Krisch and Josh Fischman of the Scientific American, December 17, 2014.http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-congress-snuck-changes-to-u-s-environmental-policy-into-the-new-budget-bill/
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