Terms of Engagement

The Climate Scofflaw

The Climate Scofflaw

Despite President Barack Obama’s vow, in his first post-reelection press conference, to take decisive action on climate change, the global climate talks in Doha are dragging to a close with the United States, as usual, a target of activists’ wrath. The Obama administration has shown no interest in submitting to a binding treaty on carbon emissions and refuses to increase funding to help developing countries reduce their own emissions, while the United States continues to behave as a global scofflaw on climate change.

Actually, that’s not true — the last part, anyway. According to the International Energy Agency, U.S. emissions have dropped 7.7 percent since 2006 — "the largest reduction of all countries or regions." Yes, you read that correctly. The United States, which has indeed refused to sign the Kyoto Accords establishing binding targets for emissions, has reduced its carbon footprint faster than the greener-than-thou European countries which have done so. The reasons for this have something to do with climate change itself (warm winters mean less heating oil — something to do with market forces — the shift from coal to natural gas in power plants) and something to do with policy at the state and regional level. And in the coming years, as both new gas-mileage standards and new power-plant regulations championed by the Obama administration kick in, policy will drive the numbers further downwards; U.S. emissions are expected to fall 23 percent between 2002 and 2020. Apparently Obama’s record on climate change is not quite as calamitous as reputation would have it.

The West has largely succeeded in bending downwards the curve of carbon emissions. But the developing world has not. Last year, China’s emissions rose 9.3 percent; India’s, 8.7 percent. China is now the world’s No. 1 source of carbon emissions, followed by the United States, the European Union, and India. The emerging powers have every reason to want to emulate the energy-intensive economic success of the West; even those, like China, who have taken steps to increase energy efficiency, are not prepared to do anything to harm economic growth. The real failure of U.S. policy has been, first, that it is still much too timid, and second, that it has not acted in such a way as to persuade developing nations to take the truly difficult decisions which would put the world on a sustainable path. 

There’s a useful analogy with the nuclear nonproliferation regime. In an earlier generation, the nuclear stockpiles of the United States and the Soviet Union posed the greatest threat to global security. Now the threat comes from the proliferation of weapons to weak or rogue states or to non-state actors. But the only way that Washington can persuade other governments to join in a tough nonproliferation regime is by taking the lead in reducing its own nuclear stockpile — which the Obama administration has sought to do, albeit with very imperfect success. In a word where power is more widely distributed, U.S. action matters less in itself, but carries great weight as a demonstration model — or anti-demonstration model.

Logic would thus dictate that the United States bind itself in a global compact to reduce emissions, as through the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) it has bound itself to reduce nuclear weapons. But the Senate would never ratify such a treaty. And even if it did, would China and India similarly bind themselves? Here the nuclear analogy begins to break down, because the NPT mostly requires that states submit to inspections of their nuclear facilities, while a climate change treaty poses what looks very much like a threat to states’ economic growth. Fossil fuels are even closer to home than nukes. Is it any wonder that only EU countries and a few others have signed the Kyoto Accords? A global version of Kyoto is supposed to be readied by 2015, but a growing number of climate change activists — still very much a minority — accept that this may not happen and need not happen.

So what can Obama do? It is possible that much tougher action on emissions would help persuade China, India, and others that energy efficiency need not hinder economic growth. As Michael Levi, a climate expert at the Council on Foreign Relations points out, the United States gets little credit abroad for reducing emissions largely thanks to "serendipitous" events. Levi argues, as do virtually all policy thinkers and advocates, that the United States must increase the cost of fossil fuels, whether through a "carbon tax" or cap-and-trade system, so that both energy efficiency and alternative fuels become more attractive, and also to free up money to be invested in new technologies. This is what Obama’s disappointed supporters thought he would do in the first term, and urge him to do now.

Obama is probably not going to do that either. In his post-election press conference, he insisted that he would find "bipartisan" solutions to climate change, and congressional Republicans are only slightly more likely to accept a sweeping change in carbon pricing than they are to ratify a climate-change treaty. The president also said that any reform would have to create jobs and growth, which sounds very much like a signal that he will avoid new taxes or penalties (even though advocates of such plans insist that they would spur economic growth).

All these prudent political calculations are fine when you can afford to fail. But we can’t afford to fail. Global temperatures have already increased 0.7 degrees Celsius (or about 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit). Disaster really strikes at a 2 degree Celsius increase, which leads to large-scale drought, wildfires, decreased food production, and coastal flooding. But the current global trajectory of coal, oil, and gas consumption means that, according to Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency’s chief economist,  "the door to a 2 degree Celsius trajectory is about to close." That’s how dire things are.

What, then, can Obama do that is equal to the problem? He can invest. Once the fiscal cliff negotiations are behind him, and after he has held his planned conversation with "scientists, engineers and elected officials," he can tell the American people that they have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the future, for themselves and for people everywhere. He can propose — as he hoped to do as part of the stimulus package of 2009 — that the U.S. build a "smart grid"  to radically improve the efficiency of electricity distribution. He can argue for large-scale investments in research and development of new sources of energy and energy-efficient construction technologies and lots of other whiz-bang things. This, too, was part of the stimulus spending; it must become bigger, and permanent. 

The reason Obama should do this is, first, because the American people will (or could) rally behind a visionary program in a way that they never will get behind the dour mechanics of carbon pricing. Second, because the way to get to a carbon tax is to use it as a financing mechanism for such a plan. Third, because oil and gas are in our bloodstream; as Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute, puts it, "The only thing that’s going to drive fossil fuels off the market is cheaper renewable energy." Fourth, the United States cannot afford to miss out on the gigantic market for green technology.

Finally, there’s leverage. China and India may not do something sensible but painful, like  adopting carbon pricing, because the United States does so, but they will adopt new technologies if the U.S. can prove that they work without harming economic growth. Developing countries have already made major investments in reducing air pollution, halting deforestation, and practicing sustainable agriculture; they’re just too modest. It is here, above all, that the United States can serve as a demonstration model — the world’s most egregious carbon consumer showing the way to a low-carbon future. 

Global warming-denial is finally on the way out. Three-quarters of Americans now say  they believe in global warming, and more than half believe that humans are causing it and want to see a U.S. president take action. President Obama doesn’t have to do the impossible. He must, however, do the possible.