Lowered Expectations for Climate Talks at G20

Hope for a major breakthrough on climate at the G20 has faded in the environmental and international NGO community, and many are dubious about what might come out of the summit Friday.

"Expectations have really fallen in the past few weeks," says Kirstine Hughes, head of the public policy and advocacy for Oxfam Great Britain. After less-than-breakthrough meetings of the G8, G20, Major Economies Forum, and the United Nations this past year, she speculates that people are now "summited out." "It's almost as if there are too many meetings, too many overlapping agendas." And there are still more questions than answers on Obama's anticipated pitch to end fossil fuel subsidies, the other major climate-related topic this week.

There may yet be signs of progress—if leaders emerge with specifics. With several major summits to go before the big climate talks this December, including two meetings of the Major Economies Forum and a meeting of finance ministers in November, solid commitments from leaders now could still lead to a deal in Copenhagen.

On financing (which Rachel Morris covered in an excellent post this morning), Hughes argues that leaders will need to come up with some dollar figures this week, even if it's only for the near-term. And any financing plan has to acknowledge the historical responsibility of developed nations for emissions, as well as their responsibility to help poorer nations transition. "If you're serious, you actually recognize that a deal needs money," says Hughes. "It's not the end of negotiations tomorrow, but if you want to get the negotiations going, you have to put some credible financial offer of some sort on the table."

Boxer-Kerry Climate Bill Expected Next Wednesday

After weeks of waiting, it now looks like the Senate will see a climate bill next week after all. At an event in Pittsburgh ahead of the G20 summit, bill cosponsor John Kerry (D-Mass.) announced that the bill will be released next Wednesday.

Kerry said the bill, which he is cosponsoring with Energy and Public Works chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif), will have a strong and broad coalition backing it at release. He also said it will be a "thoughtful, innovative, far-reaching solution" and "will take a more comprehensive approach to dwindling oil reserves than any prior legislation."

It's expected that the bill Kerry and Boxer release will still include some placeholders as senators continue to work out the details on issues like permit allocation. Boxer has promised to hold hearings on her draft, which sources close to the debate say will start the week of Oct. 5. Markup is expected to begin in mid-October.

One notable development, reported by Greenwire, is that Boxer's draft will likely include an emissions reduction target of 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The House bill had a 17 percent target, and Boxer's environmental allies have been pushing her to improve it. One argument she is expected to make supporting the increase is a recent study from the Energy Information Administration that found that the US is on track to come in at 8.5 percent below 2005 levels of carbon dioxide by the end of this year. Most of the decrease is due to the recession and some utilities switching to natural gas, but it is exactly halfway to the emissions cuts outlined for 2020 in the House bill–meaning a larger cut won't be quite as challenging as once thought.

Plain Vanilla

I've been mulling this over ever since I first read it.  It's from a story about Barney Frank's decision to jettison one part of Obama's plan for a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency:

An Obama proposal that Mr. Frank rejected would have required banks and other financial services companies to offer so-called plain vanilla products, like 30-year fixed mortgages and low-interest, low-fee credit cards.

That proposal set off criticism by Democrats and Republicans, some with close ties to the banking industry, that it was the first step toward having government bureaucrats approve and disapprove an array of products.

The more I mull, the more pissed off I get.  Yes, this would be a very direct government intrusion into the financial market, but that's the whole point.  That's exactly why it might actually work and exactly why politicians "with close ties to the banking industry" don't like it.

Look: the finance lobby would prefer that this bill — and especially the CFPA — simply go away.  Failing that, they'd like the CFPA's writ to be so circumscribed and its rules so intricately written that they can figure out easy ways to ignore it.  As we know all too well, they're pretty good at that.  The only way to keep this from happening is to write some very plain, very clear regulations that simply can't be evaded.

And why shouldn't we?  Forty years ago Congress passed the Truth in Lending Act which, among many other things, limited consumer liability for stolen credit cards to $50.  That was a pretty direct intrusion into the financial market, but it worked: it was a plain and simple requirement with no wiggle room and no loopholes.  If you offer credit cards to consumers, you're responsible for all losses above $50.  And guess what?  The credit card industry seems to have done pretty well for itself despite having the TILA jackboot on its throat all this time.  And consumers have been saved billions of dollars.

(Plus there's this bonus: because banks are responsible for losses over $50, they've put a ton of time and energy into figuring out how to limit losses.  They make sure their customers have fast and easy access to 800 numbers to report stolen cards.  They have sophisticated transaction monitoring software and they call you proactively if they see spending patterns that suggest fraud.  They have reward programs for merchants who confiscate cards.  Etc.  Do you think they would have done any of this if you were on the hook for bogus charges?  Nope.  Instead, they would have spent the past four decades claiming that stuff like this simply wasn't economically feasible and consumers needed to be more careful with their credit cards.)

The "plain vanilla" requirement would accomplish something the financial industry hates: it would make it easy for consumers to compare products.  Even if you're planning to buy something non-vanilla, the price of the vanilla product provides a baseline that makes it easier to compare companies to each other and easier to see exactly how much you're paying (and what extra terms you're agreeing to) for the more complex products.  That's good for consumers.

And it's something we wouldn't have been afraid to insist on 40 years ago.  So why are we now?  Felix Salmon answers: "There’s no good reason for this capitulation, except for the financial lobby has so effectively captured Congress that no reform would be able to get through with such a common-sense provision in place....I fear that by the time Congress is done, the Consumer Financial Protection Agency won’t be able to protect consumers at all — and that’s assuming it’ll even exist."

UPDATE: A eulogy here from Rortybomb.  Worth a quick read.

tck tck tck Barack Obama

tck tck tck. Barack Obama are you listening? Are you a leader or a motivational speaker? Are you gonna do the hard work or Neville Chamberlain your way into the world records of spectacularly unwise mediations? tck tck tck.

 

Palin Talks Tough to China

In Sarah Palin's speech at a conference of investors in Hong Kong, she made a number of unorthodox moves. One was to deliver sweeping criticism of President Obama in a country with which the US has a rather sensitive relationship. Another was to attack a policy embraced by her running mate in last year's election, John McCain. In the speech, Palin lambasted the Obama administration's decision to end production of the F-22 fighter jet. McCain (along with Carl Levin) championed this decision in the Senate, playing a leading role in bringing down the plane. But still that wasn't the only graceless note Palin struck. At a speech in Hong Kong, Palin says she opposed ending the F-22 program...because of the military threat posed by China:

Despite the need to move men and material by air into theaters like Afghanistan, the Obama Administration sought to end production of our C-17s, the work horse of our ability to project long range power. Despite the Air Force saying it would increase future risk, the Obama Administration successfully sought to end F-22 production—at a time when both Russia and China are acquiring large numbers of next generation fighter aircraft. [emphasis mine.]

Video: 20,000 Detergent Bottles Under the Sea

After a month spent studying the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," a vortex of waste twice the size of Texas in the North Pacific Ocean where there's a 36-to-1 ratio of plastic to plankton, the scientists behind Project Kaisei offered tours of their vessel and talked with Mother Jones' Sam Baldwin, Andy Kroll, and Taylor Wiles about finding lawn chairs and laundry baskets floating a thousand miles at sea. Environmental experts also weighed in on how all that junk got out in the Pacific, its impact on marine life, and why "benign by design" is a phrase to know. Watch the video below.

MoJo extra: Check out a slideshow of plastic items that Project Kaisei brought back.

Today in Climate Maneuvering

Over at MoJo, our politics blog, we've had several updates today on climate-related machinations occurring in Congress or at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh. Check 'em out:

The Senate is about to vote on David Vitter's amendment blocking the use of federal money for policy directives from the White House climate czar.

Is the G20 punting on climate funding for poor countries?

Obama made a big pitch to the G20 on cutting government subsidies to fossil fuels. But how far does he really want to go?

Murkowski's attempted end-run around EPA regulation of greenhouse gases fails.

 

Around Arizona, it's been said that US Representative Gabrielle Giffords loves solar power so much that she married an astronaut just to feel closer to the sun.

OK, that's probably an exaggeration (and a slight to her husband, Captain Mark Kelly). But it's easy to see where the joke came from. The first issue with it's own link on her official House website is solar power. Earlier this month, the Tucson native spoke at the Solar Economic Forum where she complained that many of her colleagues "don't see solar power as serious energy. This view is mistaken."

 

GOP Sen. David Vitter recently tweeted that the Senate will soon vote on his amendment blocking the use of federal funds for any policies initiated by the White House climate czar (a.k.a. White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy director Carol Browner): "Vote on my amendment to block Obama czars in an hour. If your against Obama's czars let your followers know."

Vitter's measure is one of about 50 being considered as the Senate prepares to pass the appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency. If Vitter's right, the Senate should be voting on his amendment any minute now. We'll let you know what happens.

Update: The amenedment failed.

Quote of the Day

From Eric Kolchinsky, a former analyst at Moody's, a ratings agency, on why he's testifying before Congress today about abuses of the ratings process:

I was part of the process that did all this damage, and I feel I should try to do something now to make sure it doesn't happen again.

That's refreshing.  If you read the linked story, Kolchinsky basically says that it's business as usual at Moody's: they're giving high ratings to insanely complex debt instruments even when they know the underlying assets aren't really in very good shape.  It's yet another data point suggesting that Wall Street is already piling back into all the same practices that caused last year's meltdown.  And why not?  Unlike Kolchinsky, none of these guys really seem to believe they did anything wrong in the first place.  Hooray for bailouts!