Daniel W. Drezner

This calls for an international relations expert!

Martin Feldstein has become the whipping boy du jour in the blogosphere because of a Washington Post op-ed he published on Monday on U.S. global warming legislation.  The nub of his argument:  Americans should ask themselves whether this annual tax of $1,600-plus per family is justified by the very small resulting decline in global CO2. ...

Martin Feldstein has become the whipping boy du jour in the blogosphere because of a Washington Post op-ed he published on Monday on U.S. global warming legislation.  The nub of his argument: 

Americans should ask themselves whether this annual tax of $1,600-plus per family is justified by the very small resulting decline in global CO2. Since the U.S. share of global CO2 production is now less than 25 percent (and is projected to decline as China and other developing nations grow), a 15 percent fall in U.S. CO2 output would lower global CO2 output by less than 4 percent. Its impact on global warming would be virtually unnoticeable. The U.S. should wait until there is a global agreement on CO2 that includes China and India before committing to costly reductions in the United States.

Henry Farrell, Jonathan Chait, Matthew Yglesias, and David Roberts all call foul on Feldstein’s argument, pointing out, as Yglesias puts it:

[T]his is clearly a proposition about international relations and the domestic politics of China and India rather than a proposition about economic analysis of the Waxman-Markey bill. And it’s not a proposition that anyone actually working in the field of climate policy or diplomatic relations with China seems to agree with.

I don’t exactly work on climate policy or on diplomatic relations with China.  I did, however, stay at a Holiday In Express last night write a book on global regulatory coordination that is kind of relevant to the question.  I agree with the bloggers above that the U.S. is not going to be undercutting its bargaining position by passing something like Waxman-Markey. 

That said, let’s be honest — it’s not really going to be strengthening it all that much either.  Any kind of comprehensive climate policy will require China and India to take measures that will hobble their growth trajectories in the short run.  So the adjustment costs are enormous for them.  What could convince them to engage in genuine policy coordination? 

International relations theory suggests two mechanisms to ensure cooperation: the logic of appropriateness (i.e., the power of norms), and the logic of consequences i.e., the power of sanctions).  Certainly, the normative pressure to "do something" about global warming has been on the increase. The problem is that Chindia can deploy a counternorm of fairness. They can and will argue that because the economies belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development were historically responsible for the bulk of carbon dioxide emissions, they should be responsible for shouldering the burden of ameliorating the problem. With competing norms at play, it is unlikely that a logic of appropriateness will work on its own.

The logic of consequences involves the creation of material rewards and punishments to encourage more compliance. From everything I’ve read, however, the utility of trade sanctions or border taxes is very problematic from either a legal or a welfare perspective. Simply put, most CO2-emitting activity in these countries is for domestic consumption rather than export. 

There’s an additional reason why IR theory is pessimistic about the likelihood of cooperation on this issue.  China has supplanted America as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. From an economic perspective, we are witnessing a transition from a bipolar world (the US + EU) to a multipolar world (OECD + BRICs). International relations theory is not sanguine about what this means for international cooperation. In theory, a concert of great powers can still foster cooperation. Possible does not mean likely, however.  In practice, as the number of powerful actors increases, the likelihood of meaningful cooperation declines.  The unending Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations is obvious evidence of this. Future trends in the distribution of power do not make the creation of an effective climate change regime impossible — but they do make it much more difficult.

So, in the end, my expert take is that Waxman-Markey is kind of like Obama’s other soft power initiatives — they certainly don’t hurt, but they also don’t help all that much either. 

[So, your brilliant solution is to do nothing?–ed.  No my half-baked solution is a bit more perverse:  link adaptation benefits to construictive steps on mitigation.  The expert consensus on global warming is that regardless on what is done to mitigate its effects, adaptation to elevated levels of greenhouse gases will be required. Furthermore, this burden will fall disproportionately on the developing world.  Unlike mitigation, which is a pure public good, adaptation is an excudable benefit.  If a climate change regime proffers an adaptation fund of some sort linked to concrete steps on mitigation, it could nudge the big LDC emitters towards the necessary levels of cooperation.]

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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