Fundamental impasse on U.S. climate policy evident in House Foreign Affairs hearing on UN climate talks chaired by denialist Rep. Rohrabacher


House Foreign Affairs oversight and investigations subcommittee chair Dana Rohrabacher (R-California), Obama administration climate negotiator Todd Stern, and a disparate panel of witnesses squared off at a May 25 hearing on whether U.S. participation in United Nations climate treaty negotiations is needed or desirable. The hearing exemplified the conflict within the U.S. power elite over how best to protect U.S. political and economic interests in the context of climate diplomacy.

[CORRECTION: Due to a typo, Rep. Rohrabacher was mistakenly identified as a Democrat in the original version of this post. He is a Republican — as are all House committee and subcommittee chairs.]

Post by CSW research associate Jamal Knight with Rick Piltz

The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing (written testimony here) on May 25 titled “UN Climate Talks and Power Politics: It’s Not about the Temperature.” Climate Science Watch was at the hearing.

The hearing was chaired by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (D-California), former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and a long-time aggressive climate change denier. Rohrabacher also sits on the Science, Space and Technology Committee and brings a predetermined agenda of rejecting climate science and government policies based on treating climate change as a real problem.

Chairman Rohrabacher’s opening statement began with this:

In December 2007, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change met in Bali, Indonesia. There, in one of the most opulent resort areas in the world, a playground for the rich, a plan was drawn up to impose a lower standard of living on the rest of us.

The imperative was alleged to be “Man-made global warming” which poses a danger against which the whole world should unite. In the years since, the scientific assumptions of this supposed crisis have increasingly been challenged by prominent scientists throughout the world. …

Rohrabacher’s opening statement framed the UN climate talks as nothing more than an international game of power politics. However, at the end of the hearing he did allow Elliot Diringer, Vice President for International Strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, to have the last word, which offered a different view of some of the issues at stake.

Seemingly optimistic that a strong U.S. presence in global climate change negotiations was forthcoming, Diringer suggested that a global climate framework would necessarily have to be an evolutionary one – an international approach that should be somewhat flexible and capable of responding to changes in different countries’ political wills to combat climate change. He then cautioned that viewing the international response to climate change as a “power politics” game is what we’ve done for too long and that it is time for the U.S. to step up to the plate and move past that game.

The session began with the Rohrabacher’s assertion that “the UN climate talks have not become a forum for global cooperation, but an arena for competing national interests.”  He went on to say that “behind the debate over the supposed science of climate change, nations have fought for trade advantages, the transfer of technology, the flow of capital, and political influence” and that the talks were primarily focused on “how the future growth of the world economy will be divided up.” Rohrabacher made clear his opposition to any international agreement that could be viewed as restructuring the global economy and shifting the balance of wealth and power.

UN headquarters building New York City (UN Photo/Mark Garten)

Todd Stern, Special Envoy for Climate Change at the State Department, began his response to the Chairman’s opening remarks with a discussion of the importance of the U.S. being not only present, but also a leader in the negotiations for an international agreement on climate change. Stern noted the real and imminent climate change threats facing not only the U.S., but the globe. He stressed that a strong U.S. presence at the negotiating table is the best approach if the U.S. is to ensure the long-term protection of domestic interests, and that spurning the negotiations would likely worsen U.S. credibility on other issues in future international negotiations.

Stern, attempting to address the some of Rohrabacher’s opening remarks, said the U.S. will likely require more transparency from the United Nations before affirming any international treaty that mandates the sharing of resources and technologies. Nonetheless, Stern was adamant in insisting that the a strengthened domestic policy addressing climate change would give the U.S. the credibility it needs to be an effective player in the negotiations, and that this might be the best way to protect national economic interests during the negotiations, and even allow the U.S. to lead the negotiations moving forward.

At the conclusion of Stern’s panel, the Chairman again advocated that any international agreement, the purpose of which, in his view, was to remove autonomy from the U.S. and stifle economic development, was unacceptable as U.S. policy. Stern challenged that framing by asserting that lying dormant while other international powers sat at the negotiating table was similarly unacceptable as an approach to global climate change.

The next panel expressed both sides as they advocated how best to deal with addressing global climate change while at the same time protecting U.S. economic interests. The panel was comprised of Elliot Diringer, Pew Center on Global Climate Change; Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute; and Daniel Twining of the German Marshall Fund.

Each of the panelists, to varying degrees, expressed concerns with the U.N., and whether it is the most effective forum to address climate change. The essential back and forth centered on the U.N.’s historical significance and competencies, and whether, as a forum, it could produce a meaningful response to climate change.

Hayward, a conservative climate change contrarian, said in his opening remarks, “The international diplomacy of climate change is the most implausible and unpromising initiative since the disarmament talks of the 1930s.” He then detailed historical problems of the United Nations before concluding that the United Nations is not the proper forum to deal with global climate change.

Twining was more optimistic about the potential of U.N. climate talks to produce a meaningful agreement. He still acknowledged, however, that the U.N. structure was at times deficient, and that other models, such as multilateral agreements, might be more effective moving forward.

Diringer accepted that the traditional U.N. model had potential flaws, specifically as it relates to enforcement and transparency; however, he proposed approaches to address concerns mentioned by the Chairman and Mr. Hayward.

Rohrabacher seemed most interested in those alternative approaches that create markets or incentives for private investments in alternative energies. He was joined by Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Missouri), who specifically asked each of the panelists to suggest how the U.N. climate talks and an international agreement might affect domestic industries and the transfer of intellectual property rights relating to new technologies. Rohrabacher argued that a global climate change policy need not resemble a command and control regulation, and indicated he had less of a problem with providing incentives for private parties to enter the market for efficient energies, which could serve as the U.S. domestic climate change policy. He warned that global environmental policy shouldn’t take the place of good domestic economic policy.

The fundamental disagreements expressed at the hearing reflect the state of U.S. policy today. The U.S. currently has no coherent climate change policy or strategy – i.e., none that represents the agreed position of the governing institutions. Global climate policy and international agreements first require that individual nations possess the political will to address the issue. The U.S. currently lacks that political will, although the Obama administration has taken some steps to advance meaningful negotiations and develop new agreements.

The lack of a coherent U.S. climate policy weakens the U.S. position in international negotiations. It will remain a problem until the U.S. has a strategy commensurate with the importance of the issue, and until U.S. negotiators represent a government that is prepared to make and live up to strong international climate policy commitments. That will require, not only a commitment by the White House and administration negotiators, but a Congress ready to move beyond the kind of anti-science distractions and obstructionism represented by members like Rep. Rohrabacher.

Earlier posts:

The U.S. Congress has entered the anti-science intellectual wilderness of willful ignorance, says the science journal Nature

U.S. climate envoy Jonathan Pershing: in implementing the Cancun Agreements, the U.S. will be the focus of global attention

House Science Committee: one last ‘rational’ climate science hearing?

“Why Is There No U.S. Climate Policy?”

Additional coverage of the hearing:

Opposing views of U.N. climate talks emerge at House hearing (Environment & Energy Daily, 05/26/2011, by subscription)  

Engagement in international climate talks will boost U.S. interests abroad rather than place it at a disadvantage internationally or drain its resources, U.S. chief climate negotiator Todd Stern argued before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee yesterday.

But Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) described the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change as a vehicle for the redistribution of wealth on a global scale and questioned the validity of the scientific basis for that effort. …

Stern and Rohrabacher spar over size and nature of Green Climate Fund (ClimateWire, 05/26/2011, by subscription)

The chairman of a key House Foreign Affairs subcommittee yesterday worked to dash any hopes that the United States would contribute money to help poor countries fight climate change.

At a hearing before the panel’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), expressed amazement and disdain that the United States pledged to help raise $100 billion annually by 2020 and create a Green Climate Fund to distribute some of the funds. …

U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern, testifying before Rohrabacher’s subcommittee, said that working out the operational details of the Green Climate Fund that negotiators agreed to last year will be the administration’s top priority this year. …

Rohrabacher suggests trees cause global warming (Climate Progress, May 26)

Republican’s Climate Solution: Clear-Cut the Rain Forest (New York Times Green blog, May 26)

Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California, needs to hit the science books, forestry experts suggest.

They reached that conclusion after hearing Mr. Rohrabacher declare during a Congressional hearing on Wednesday that clear-cutting the world’s rain forests might eliminate the production of greenhouse gases responsible for climate change. …

Do trees cause global warming? (Politico, May 25)

Looking for a solution to global warming? Maybe start clear-cutting many of the world’s forests, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher says.

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs oversight subcommittee made it clear during a Wednesday hearing that he doesn’t believe in man-made global warming. …

Rohrabacher delivered several other curveballs at the hearing, which seemed preordained to draw controversy thanks to its title:  “UN Climate Talks and Power Politics — It’s Not About the Temperature.” …

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2 Responses to Fundamental impasse on U.S. climate policy evident in House Foreign Affairs hearing on UN climate talks chaired by denialist Rep. Rohrabacher

  1. Bill Walker says:

    Rohrabacher is an R, not a D. He’s also other things my manners prevent me from mentioning.

    How can we hope to solve a problem when one entire political party has decided not to believe that the problem exists? The GOP is playing politics while Rome burns.

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