Short-termism in US politics makes its presence felt abroad. When the US decides to withdraw troops from, say, Afghanistan to game its two-year Congressional election cycle, strategic affairs in India are affected. China wins and loses trade ties based on what influence US trade unions wield.
The same with climate change, except this affects the whole world. Ten days ago, leaders in the US Senate, the upper House, decided to put their efforts on ice. The Democratic Party, which controls both Houses of Congress and the White House, has dramatically diluted the scope of the legislation, saying it lacks the votes. Three months before elections, Democrats are running for cover.
India should be worried at how the US—de facto global leader—has dropped the ball on such initiatives.
That’s a sea change from a year ago, when the US House of Representatives enacted an ambitious law: Warts and all, at its centre was a cap-and-trade scheme, one that now won’t be featured in the Senate package. That’s a pity, because the world needs such market-based mechanisms to price carbon. But promising ideas about carbon taxes and technology transfers came crashing down after Copenhagen in December, all because the West tried to browbeat developing nations.
The Senate retreat at least gives developing nations such as India a similar silver lining: Carbon tariffs—part of last year’s House of Representatives act—used to force dramatic emission cuts may be thrown out of the door. But that’s not cause for wild celebration. India should continue to embrace, and convince the West, of the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (that the West has to pay a higher price), one that’s so far anchored global coordination.
The US, however, not only is unsympathetic to this principle, but also seems to be losing appetite for market mechanisms. In the past months, President Barack Obama has spent more time ranting about offshore oil drilling, and less discussing how to properly price carbon. He has even frittered precious political capital on healthcare.
At some point, US lawmakers will wake up to realize that political short-termism demands swift actions on climate change. At that point, if they start relying on eco-protectionism or command-and-control measures, then the rest of the world, too, will be paying a heavy price.
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