Saturday, August 13, 2011

Brazil's advantage in the climate debate -- no climate deniers

No questioning that climate change is really happening. No dispute of its relationship to burning fossil fuels. No Sarah Palins loving the smell of emissions. No Michael Crichton tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories about liberals inventing the whole thing. Discussing climate change is a different affair in Brazil, simply because there are no climate deniers.

This is such a refreshing change from the straw-man squawking, the industry-financed pseudo-science, and the faux-libertarian pillorying of anything climate related -- all of which in the United States passes for climate debate.

This creates a crucial difference: Brazil can actually start doing something about climate change, while the US can't get any further than defeated proposals like Waxman-Markey. Of course this doesn’t mean Brazil always is doing the right thing when it comes to climate, or that politicians are racing each other to be the first to propose a carbon tax. But the fact that there is a legitimate debate, and the fact that both liberals and conservatives can agree on the existence of anthropogenic climate change, means measures to control climate change can actually take root. Case in point is Brazil’s considerable progress in reducing deforestation, which came in large measure because the government of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wanted to go to the Copenhagen Climate Summit with progress to show. Conservative presidential candidate Jose Serra (who lost in 2010), established climate emissions targets for the state of Sao Paulo – a far cry from the recent near-admission by Republic Presidential would-be Mitt Romney that human beings might be somehow related to rising planet temperatures.

The country’s two biggest companies are taking climate seriously. State-run Petrobras, when it drills for oil in deep waters off the coast, is capturing CO2 produced along with the oil and injecting it back underground – in large part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Mining company Vale, which is, er, kinda state-owned, has started using biodiesel in its trains to cut emissions from fossil fuels (for those waiting to pounce on the food vs. fuels debate, I’ll give you my take on this in a future post) and has revamped its iron ore processing techniques to cut the use of water.

One of the most striking things for me was seeing the response of industry when Rio de Janeiro state started talking about creating a cap-and-trade system. I was curious what the Rio industry folks had to say about so I called an industry confederation leader, waiting to get an earful about nobody can “prove” global warming actually exists. Instead he made the following points.

1) Climate change is something all of us need to deal with, industry included (Gasp!)
2) Industry is responsible for less than half of emissions in Rio state, which mostly come from cars, trucks, planes and methane seeps from trash dumps (a fair point)
3) If the state sets the price of emissions certificates too high, it could make companies less competitive and more likely to expand in other states (also a fair point)

It's the sorts of response that lays the groundwork for a legitimate debate about climate. I really wonder what climate legislation would look like in the United States if the American collective unconscious about this issue were a bit more Brazilian.

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