There is much flutter around Senate Democrats’ recent decision to give up on the Energy Bill that might have brought about a cap-and-trade system here in the US.

From the NYTimes:

Senate Democrats on Tuesday abandoned all hopes of passing even a slimmed-down energy bill before they adjourn for the summer recess, saying that they did not have sufficient votes even for legislation tailored narrowly to respond to the Gulf oil spill.

Although the majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, sought to blame Republicans for sinking the energy measure, the reality is that Democrats are also divided over how to proceed on the issue and had long ago given up hope of a comprehensive bill to address climate change.

There will be a lot of analysis of the biophysical impact of our continuing inability to act on the twinned issues of climate change and energy in the coming days, I am sure.  But, early in the morning, I want to quickly point out the cascading disaster this will cause in the environment and development policy world.  What most people don’t understand about the Copenhagen meetings, which ended in such confusion without a clear agreement, is that most of the key actors decided that it would be best to wait and see what the US managed to pass for its own internal purposes, and then try to work to that to ensure that the US joined the next major global climate agreement (remember, we never did sign Kyoto).  Copenhagen wasn’t really a failure the way many people thought – indeed, had they plowed ahead with an agreement in absence of American climate and energy legislation, they would have set the stage for Kyoto II – where the US, once again, refused to sign on to standards that it had not already agreed to.

I have found exactly one piece of good coverage of this issue, via Lisa Friedman of ClimateWire: “Overseas Frustration Grows Over U.S. Domestic Impasse on Climate Policy”.  The article nicely captures what is truly at stake here:

“Why is it that for the last 20 years the United States is unable to have a bill on climate change? What’s happening? What’s going on? It’s very complicated to understand,” said Brice Lalonde, France’s top negotiator.

“For a lot of us, we cannot wait for the United States. We have to go on. It’s like Kyoto,; we just go on” Lalonde said, referring to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol treaty that the U.S. joined but never ratified, leaving European countries to largely carry the weight of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Added Pa Ousman Jarju, lead negotiator for the small West African nation of Gambia, “We cannot rely on the U.S., because everything the U.S. is supposed to do depends on domestic policy. So we’re not going to get anything from the U.S. in terms of tangible commitment.”

He charged that the international community is “no longer hopeful” that America, the world’s biggest historic emitter of global warming pollution, will ever pass a bill to cut emissions. That, he said, leaves the global community with two options: “Either the rest of the world continues to do what they were doing before, or the whole multilateral system will collapse.”

What we were doing before was not good enough.  I am not all that sure that the net outcome of business as usual is all that different from a complete collapse of the environmental component of the multilateral system as we understand it.  The US simply has to be on board, or this is all for naught.  UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres put it this way:

“Whether the United States meets the pledge that it put on the Copenhagen Accord via legislation or whether it meets it via regulation is an internal domestic affair of the United States and one that they need to solve,” she said. “What is clear is that at an international level the United States needs to participate in a a meaningful way, and in a way that is commensurate with its responsibility.”

Credit to her for saying this clearly, and for suggesting that content (getting some sort of formal controls on emissions in place, whether through regulation or legislation) is a lot more important than form (insisting that everyone pass legislation to somehow bolster the legitimacy of these efforts).  Now, let’s see if the Obama Administration is willing to really use the newly-empowered EPA as a blunt object in the fight to control greenhouse gas emissions – at this point, I see no other way forward for the US.  Which means no other meaningful way forward for the rest of the world.