It's been obvious for some time now that the Obama administration's promises to fight global warming are in mothballs. But it's still shocking to see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attack the 27 European countries that are actually trying to do something about the greatest environmental challenge of our time.
The European Parliament in 2008 enacted a broadly popular law aimed at reducing Europe's carbon pollution. As of January 1, 2012, it will begin to apply to the aviation industry, one of the fastest-growing contributors to global warming. The law is essentially a cap-and-trade system, a scheme adopted by the Europeans in response to long-standing U.S. insistence that global warming should be tackled through this mechanism. While cap-and-trade is neither the only nor the best way to cut pollution, since its success can be undercut in a variety of ways from market manipulation to problematic "offset" programs, the EU law is so far the only law on the books to do something about the carbon pollution spewed high into the atmosphere by the thousands of planes that cross the sky each day.
Yet, earlier this month, Secretary Clinton and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood threatened to take "appropriate action" -- an ill-disguised threat of a trade war -- unless Europe exempts American airlines from the European carbon trading scheme. For the Obama administration to attack the European law, the system the U.S. has long insisted on, is the height of hypocrisy.
In their Dec. 16 letter to the European Union, Clinton and LaHood parroted spurious arguments cobbled together by three U.S. airlines, United/Continental and American, and their trade association made in a lawsuit they filed to defeat the European law. But on Dec. 21, the European Court of Justice, Europe's highest court, flatly rejected those arguments and upheld the European Union's decision to hold all airlines, foreign and domestic, accountable for their carbon emissions while flying to, from, or within the EU. The high court's decision found the EU law in full compliance with international law, holding that it neither infringes on the sovereignty of other nations nor constitutes an impermissible tax.
Threatening trade warfare to shield U.S. aviation from any pollution limits disregards both the rules of international law and principles of comity between political allies -- never mind the fact that the law reflects the will of 27 European nations and their citizens. The financial impact will amount to, at most, some $16 for a transatlantic flight. That's less than a pittance to an industry that charges for checking a bag, a few inches of extra legroom and even a box of snacks. And amazingly, in the short term, the U.S. airlines may even profit from the trading scheme.
Secretary Clinton's stern admonition to Europe to abandon this extremely modest pollution-control measure, and instead work to reach an international standard at UN-sponsored talks on aviation, is an outright sham. Those international negotiations haven't produced a single result in the last 14 years -- not even agreement on the basic question of how to measure an emission standard -- in large part due to obstruction and interference by the U.S. In the international climate change negotiations in Durban just last month, the U.S. tried to justify delay through 2020 in reaching a binding international climate treaty by supposedly championing action at the local and national levels. That's a delay the world cannot afford. But worse yet, at the first opportunity to shore up precisely that kind of action, the U.S. is trying to sabotage it. The action rightly drew loud condemnation from environmental groups.
But, while Secretaries Clinton and LaHood do the petty bidding of the airline industry, the climate crises worsens and deepens: This year was one of the warmest on record, the loss of sea ice is pushing polar bears and other species toward extinction, extreme weather is wreaking havoc and climate-driven humanitarian crises are unfolding around the globe. Europe has taken an important step toward addressing global warming. If the Obama administration isn't going to lead on addressing this crisis, it should at least get out of the way. The current course of bullying and sabotage is simply indefensible.