Behind the scenes of the energy debate, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., is working to prepare the United States for the December United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen. Cardin was recently in Athens to deliver an address on climate change to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a regional security coalition. He was there as part of his duties as chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency staffed by congressional members and administration officials that works with OSCE. Cardin is also a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which is currently marking up the climate legislation introduced recently by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
NationalJournal.com spoke with Cardin after his trip to get his take on some of the key components of a global climate change treaty and domestic climate legislation.
NJ: You have called for an international treaty to include an "enforcement mechanism" against imports" from countries that don't meet their international goals of reducing greenhouse gases. Can you elaborate on this proposal?
Cardin: What we want to make sure is that once we set international targets, and each state has their requirements and each state enacts their laws, that in fact there is an enforcement of those limits. If we enact targets and countries are supposed to meet their targets and they don't, we're not going to meet our overall targets. So, there needs to be a mechanism for enforcement. ...
What it would mean is that if a country is supposed to meet a certain target and they don't meet that target, the products that come from their country into the international marketplace would be assessed the carbon difference as to how much it would have cost to comply with their standards. That assessment would be an import fee, basically, for a product entering another market.
NJ. Would this serve the same function as a border tax?
Cardin: In reality, yes, it's the same thing. But it's not enacted by a country. It's an international standard. So rather than the United States having a border adjustment, it would be an international regime under the climate change [agreement] rather than under the WTO.
NJ: The legislation that passed the House in June includes a border tax provision. Are you in support of a border tax as part of domestic legislation?
Cardin: I think you have to be able to address the question as a U.S. parliamentarian: How do you protect an American company in competition if a product made from another country is not subject to the same regime as the American company on reducing carbon -- or paying for the cost of carbon? So I think you have to be able to answer that question. I would rather answer it through international enforcement, but if you can't through international enforcement then I think it's certainly a legitimate issue for each country to deal with on their own.
NJ. Several lawmakers have criticized the border tax, saying it could trigger trade wars between countries. Do you think implementing an international provision like this would prevent trade wars?
Cardin: I'm not so sure that the provision that's in the House bill would promote a trade war, so I'm not going to concede that point. But I do believe it is much more understandable internationally if it's done under Copenhagen rather than each country acting on its own.
NJ. What do you see as the Kerry-Boxer bill's strongest international components?
Cardin: First, it provides U.S. leadership on the targets. The targets are aggressive. Secondly, it provides financing for the developing world, which is certainly a major issue in the international community. It also provides direct financing for deforestation remedies.
NJ: Is there anything not included in the bill that you think should either be included in that bill or be at the forefront of the discussions in Copenhagen?
Cardin: I'm working with Senator Kerry on making sure our international obligations are adequately funded. That's a continuing effort. I'm not sure if I'm going to be totally satisfied about what I see in the first efforts.
NJ: President Obama is scheduled to visit China in November. What do you think should be his goals going into that meeting?
Cardin: I hope we'll have a bilateral with China on some of these issues. ... I hope we'll be able to show some mutual progress. The fact that these meetings are taking place is significant in and of itself. The fact that China is becoming more and more of a player by their individual actions on climate change is important. Where China has not moved as aggressively as I would like is agreeing to work directly with the international community rather than just unilateral actions. And I hope the president can advance that need for China to be very bold in Copenhagen, really working closely with the developing world to make sure we get a successful conclusion. So I would like the president to advance that in November.
NJ: Experts have predicted that China is set to outpace the United States, not to mention the rest of the world, in producing renewable energy, making this more of a competition than an international cooperation. Is that part of your concern?
Cardin: Right. China is very strategic when it comes to trying to position itself in the international trade and investments in other countries. So they're continuing to act that way on climate change, being very strategic, understanding that it means job growth and the development of their own economy. Where I have not seen China is their willingness to enter into an international regime, and I think that's the challenge.
NJ: Where do you predict Congress will be in its climate change debate come December?
Cardin: Chairman Boxer has announced hearings and she intends to go to markup, so I think it is now becoming more and more likely that we'll have a bill out of the Environment and Public Works Committee before Copenhagen. I'm not sure how much further we'll get than that. But I think there is momentum in the United States Senate for more support -- Sen. [Lindsey] Graham and Sen. Kerry's piece in the New York Times was certainly encouraging. There seems to be some momentum developing in the Senate, so that's what we want to see... giving the president the confidence to commit the United States to significant responsibilities in Copenhagen.
NJ: How do you think the U.S. should respond to the criticism that the Senate's goal of reducing emissions by 20 percent by 2020 isn't even close to what it should be aiming for?
Cardin: I personally believe we could do better than 2020, but I think that's certainly a very forward aggressive goal -- puts the United States at the forefront internationally on carbon reduction. Those who say it's not enough -- let's see how well they're doing themselves. ... Can we be more aggressive? Absolutely. But this would be a huge step forward.
NJ: Do you think there is going to be any "sleeper" region -- an area of the world not discussed much in the media -- that will come to the fore during international climate change talks?
Cardin: You've got to look at South America. That's a critical part of the equation.
NJ: In what respect?
Cardin: The environmental issues concerning forestation, concerning the costs of the developing world. That's a part of the world that we need to look at. Africa also. South America and Africa are regions that we have to be mindful of during this debate. There is a lot of carbon capture capacity there.
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“Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith is honored for his efforts to promote an end to the division of Cyprus, with Alexis Galanos, President, Union of Cypriot Municipalities and Mayor of Famagusta, Cyprus. (June 2015)