Concerns are growing in Brussels that persistent denial of human-caused global warming among Republican presidential hopefuls could damage EU-US relations and even spark a trade conflict.
All the leading challengers for the White House have staked out positions on global warming that defy the international scientific consensus, causing what Thomas Legge, a climate officer for the German Marshall Fund, called “exasperation” in Brussels.
Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said in September she was “shocked that the political debate in the US is so far away from the scientific facts.”
“When you hear American presidential candidates denying climate change, it’s difficult to take,” she said.
If a Republican president disrupted the EU’s inclusion of aviation in the EU’s Emissions Trading System, or its default values ascribed to oil from tar sands, Jo Leinen, the chair of the European Parliament’s environment committee, called for “a reaction that would affect transatlantic trade.”
“In order to have a fair competition between our industries and theirs, we could talk about broader measures against materials from the US with high energy intensity or output of climate gases like steel, metals, and chemical products,” he told EurActiv.
This could take the form of “a CO2 levy or tax on the border to compensate for the [low carbon] investments in products made in Europe,” he said.
Rather than continue with current EU-US relations, Leinen proposed a move by the EU to “orient itself towards a coalition with China.”
But Sarah Ludford, the Liberal vice-chair of the EU’s delegation for relations with the United States, disagreed with trade sanctions, while conceding that Republican positions were “a long way from the mainstream of European thinking”.
“As a free-trader, I am always a little bit wary of trade linkages,” she said by telephone from London. “I understand where Jo Leinen is coming from but I would tread with caution as you can descend into a tit-for-tat situation that carries considerable dangers.”
“I hope that Obama wins the election and we get a more moderate and encouraging position from the US administration,” she added, speaking in a personal capacity.
Six candidates are vying for the Republican party’s nomination to challenge Democrat incumbent Barack Obama in the November general election.
Ironically, the ‘cap and trade’ idea that underwrites the global carbon market was originally the brainchild of US Republicans. But this changed because of what one senior US climate negotiator at Kyoto described as a collection of “toxic” ingredients.
“There are three issues – constraining industry, sending money abroad, and strengthening the UN – that are inflammatory on their own right,” Nigel Purvis, a State Department official under the Clinton and Bush administrations, said on the phone from Washington.
More than that, the climate change issue had become a symbol of ‘big government’ for Republicans, Purvis argued, and this had been amplified by “an enormous amount of campaign finance contributions and political advertising” paid for by the fossil fuel industry, and some trades-unions.
“When you put all these factors together, they are a Molotov cocktail,” Purvis said. “It is unfortunate and quite dangerous.”
The UN climate chief Christiana Figueres has said leadership changes in the US and elsewhere should not undermine progress towards setting up a globally binding climate deal by 2015, as set down in the roadmap at the recent global climate summit in Durban, South Africa.
However, Republican party presidential contenders may disagree with Figueres’ analysis.
Rick Santorum has described global warming as “a liberal conspiracy” for government control, based on “junk science”. Mitt Romney argues that the origins of climate change are unknown, and little should be spent on countering it.
Ron Paul has called global warming “the greatest hoax… in hundreds of years”, while Rick Perry described it as a “contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight”. Newt Gingrich has recanted past support for climate action.
Only the moderate outrider Jon Huntsman accepts the climate science adhered to by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change and some 98% of the world’s scientific community.
Legge says the current crop of Republican contenders might be less antagonistic to climate science in the White House than they were on the hustings, partly because the government’s civil service is staffed by officials with scientific backgrounds.
He also suggested that “the candidates are taking positions of necessity to win primaries and they will then tack back to the centre.”
Nigel Purvis, now the president of the Climate Advisers consultancy in Washington, agreed that there was long-term cause for optimism with progress being made towards tackling US carbon emissions.
But “it is really regrettable that we have gone from being on the brink of a major success in 2009 with the election of a strong climate champion [Obama] and Democrat control of the Congress, back even further than we were when George W. Bush was elected.”
“The revisiting of the basics on science is depressing,” he said.