Outflanking the Bush Administration

It is a mark of both the end-of-term paralysis of the administration of US President George Bush and its hostility to the theory that greenhouse gases are responsible for global warming that three US state governors last week had to join Indonesia and Brazil try to do something about it.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and six governors from Brazil and Indonesia signed a memorandum of understanding to work together to attempt to slow tropical deforestation and land degradation in the world’s so-called tropical green lungs.

About a third of the world’s remaining rainforest lies in Brazil. Another 20-odd percent is in the Congo Basin in Africa and in Indonesia, the world’s third-biggest producer of greenhouse gas, resulting from fires and clearing of peat forest. Agriculture, land use and forestry account for 81 percent of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions. Tropical deforestation accounts for more than 20 percent of all human-caused carbon emissions in the world, Schwarzenegger said at an announcement of the memorandum.

It is unclear what the action by the governors, who included Indonesia’s Aceh governor Yusof Irwandi and Barnamas Suebu of Papua, means in practical terms. About all the MOU does is express the officials “willingness to cooperate, in the search of joint actions that improve environmental quality and optimize the quality of life” in the respective states. Certainly, Indonesia shows little sign of cutting back on breakneck clearing of land for expansion of palm oil plantations, particularly in Kalimantan, on the Indonesian side of the island of Borneo.

Nonetheless, the MOU appears to represent an advance from actions by the Bush administration, caught in the coils of the oil industry, which have in essence cost the entire planet eight years of progress on combating global warming. One of President Bush’s first acts on taking office in 2001 was to disown the United Nations-sponsored Kyoto Protocol which mandated curbs on greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, charging that the treaty would have cost US industry nearly US$400 billion and almost five million jobs, a statement disputed by environmentalists. At the time of the signing in 1997 by then-Vice President Al Gore, the United States accounted for 36 percent of industrialized nations’ CO2 emissions.

And, while the memo’s effect on Indonesia and Brazil may be uncertain, it is the latest example of the devolution of power away from the government in Washington and into the hands of local governments. With the administration’s refusal to act on a wide variety of issues, not just the environment, it has been the individual states, which had steadily been losing power to the US federal government for decades, that have taken the initiative to act, particularly on standards for green buildings, renewable energy, energy efficiency and global warming, developing initiatives to serve as models for federal action with the advent of a new administration. It has also been pointed out that California’s emissions alone exceed Brazil’s and Texas’s levels of greenhouse gases exceed those of France.

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In 2007, the midwestern state of Iowa created a state fund to the research and development of biofuels and energy-efficient technologies. Minnesota signed legislation to cut state energy consumption by 25 percent by 2025 and reduce greenhouse gases by 80 percent by 2050. Maryland passed legislation to encourage greater energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gases. When California passed landmark legislation in 2006 requiring automakers to cut tailpipe emissions in a program of regulatory and market mechanisms to cut greenhouse gases, the Bush administration’s Environmental Protection Agency blocked California’s efforts, which had been joined by 16 other individual states. That kicked off a continuing legal struggle over whether individual states can take a lead role in combating global warming.

While the individual states were acting to attempt to protect the environment, however, the Bush administration has been pushing through hundreds of last-minute regulations relaxing environmental protections before the administration of President-elect Barack Obama comes into office Jan. 20. These so-called “midnight regulations” relax restrictions on private industry, particularly for power plants and Mines.

Some of the expected changes would allow increased emissions from power plants, factories and refineries, and would permit coal mining operations to dump waste in valleys and streams, critics in Washington, DC charge. They say the process to reverse the last-minute changes will be long, complicated and time-consuming. Environmental and civic groups have called for a ban on the last-minute changes. The Bush administration, however, defended the changes, saying they are just part of the normal governing process.

While states and municipalities have been acting to cut greenhouse gases and take other social and environmental actions that the Bush administration has either opposed or delayed, however, it is believed that the 18 November action by the individual governors and the officials from Brazil and Indonesia is the first time individual state governments have sought to act across international boundaries.

As Schwarzenegger pointed out, Indonesian and Brazilian governors manage more than 60 percent of the world’s tropical rainforests. It is the first state-to-state, sub-national agreement focused on reducing emissions from deforestation and land degradation, the California governor pointed out.

Tropical rainforests, which are disappearing at a staggering rate, sustain as much as 50 percent of the world’s plant and animal species and play a crucial role in regulating global weather. They store vast amounts of carbon, which is released into the air as the forest is clear-cut for farming or oil palm plantations. It is estimated by the environmental protection group Mongabay that more than 32,000 hectares of forest disappear each day, adding carbon to the atmosphere.

Indonesia was one of several tropical nations at a United Nations-sponsored conference in Bali last December to suggest that industrialized nations should pay rainforest-rich nations to protect their forests to offset greenhouse gas emissions. Barnabas Suebu, the Papua Province governor who signed the memorandum of understanding sponsored by Schwarzenegger, was one of the moving forces behind the Indonesia proposal.

Suebu’s proposal, according to the Wall Street Journal, would have Papua become an active player in the world's emerging carbon markets through a series of exchanges that “let investors and companies buy and sell the right to pollute. By setting aside a portion of the earmarked land for conservation, he believes Papua could attract companies who wish to gain carbon ‘credits.’" European and U.S. investors would put money into an offshore carbon fund which would then flow to local governments not to cut. Compliance would be monitored via satellite technology.

In Aceh province last March, the ailing investment bank Merrill Lynch – before it went into the tank in the continuing global credit meltdown -- invested US$9 million over four years to protect 750,000 hectares of rainforest under a similar philosophy.