Comment: Beware enemy within

Back in 1970, the inaugural Earth Day poster warned that "we have met the enemy and he is us."

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Fast forward to today and the greatest challenge facing President Barack Obama's push for green energy and climate laws in the US is not the Republican opposition, but the fiscally conservative, right-leaning politicians in the President's own Democratic party. The votes of these self-identified Blue Dog Democrats are key to the passage of Democratic-led legislation. Despite Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, the creation of a powerful climate change law rests on the support of conservative Democrats.

Some of the Blue Dogs' opposition to tough energy laws is born of geographical self-interest - many conservative Democrats hail from southern states where the coal industry is a major employer. Some speak in favour of renewable energy and express concern over climate change, but a far greater proportion are keener to choke off government spending and squash anything that could be seen as a new tax.

The central component of the climate change bill is the first carbon cap-and-trade program in the US, which creates a market-based structure for regulating emissions of carbon dioxide, the main contributor to global warming. Many politicians interpret this as little more than an energy tax. These politicians forecast a dire future with consumers and businesses crippled by skyrocketing bills.

These grim warnings have helped weaken support for the sort of aggressive cap-and-trade legislation that scientists say is necessary for the US to get a grip on climate change and lead the way for other countries, particularly at December's world climate talks in Copenhagen. The lukewarm support of the Blue Dogs did help pass a watered down version of the climate change bill in the House. In that legislation, the cap-and-trade mechanism is modest in scope and will take an age to kick in. The bill's national renewable electricity standard will affect the wind market more quickly.

Yet conservative forces in Congress have been so successful in negotiating concessions that many US states have already met the proposed national target. If the row over healthcare leaves time, the Senate will debate its own version of a climate bill. But if the appeasements made in the House to satisfy the Blue Dogs are mimicked in the Senate, there will be little to celebrate on the next Earth Day.

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