Obama’s Inconvenient Truth

U.S. officials are increasingly banging the drum for greater action on climate change. Is the rest of the world listening?

Timothy A. Clary - AFP - Getty
Timothy A. Clary - AFP - Getty

For the first time in the five years since the Copenhagen climate conference ended with a dismal, eleventh-hour whimper, world leaders are huddling again in the hopes of cobbling together some sort of deal that could rein in greenhouse gas emissions and take the worst of the sting out of climate change.

But for all the speeches, star power, and public demonstrations, including the hundreds of thousands who marched through the streets of New York on Sept. 21 demanding concerted action to fight global warming, the world seems farther away than ever from reaching even the modest cuts needed to forestall the worst effects of rising temperatures.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama will join more than 100 other world leaders for a one-day, United Nations-sponsored climate summit meant to act as a defibrillator for moribund global climate-change talks. Ahead of the summit, which is designed to bind states big and small to curbs in greenhouse gas emissions after 2020, policymakers in the United States and overseas have tried to drum up political support for greater action by pointing to the security risks and economic costs posed by global warming.

U.S. spies, like the Pentagon before them, are increasingly worried about how rising sea levels and dropping water tables could fuel instability and conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry, himself a longtime climate campaigner in the U.S. Senate, called climate change as urgent a threat as Ebola or the terror group ISIS — or even more so: "You can make a powerful argument that it may be, in fact, the most serious challenge we face on the planet because it’s about the planet itself," Kerry said Monday ahead of the climate confab.

The economic toll from climate change, and especially the costs that will accrue from not tackling ever-rising global emissions — each decade’s delay in dealing with emissions will add 40 percent to the costs — are increasingly preoccupying finance chiefs inside and outside of government. The heirs to the Rockefeller fortune made headlines when they announced that they would divest from fossil fuels, for example.

And U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew made the case on Monday for tackling climate change sooner rather than later, citing the increased costs of delaying action and the economic harm that climate change will wreak on nearly all sectors of the economy.

"If the fiscal burden from climate change continues to rise, it will create budgetary pressures that will force hard trade-offs, larger deficits, and higher taxes. Whatever your public policy views … you should care about the costs of coping with climate-related damage," Lew said at an event at the Brookings Institution.

And yet some of the absences at the U.N. summit are as significant as all the impassioned speeches: The leaders of China, India, and several other key countries are skipping the event. That’s important, because global emissions reached an all-time high last year and are expected to grow even more this year.

China, for instance, is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, and even its once-low per capita emissions have now roared past European levels. India’s economy, meanwhile, is following a very similar path to the one trod by China in recent decades. But developing nations view the climate summit as an attempt by rich countries, responsible for the bulk of carbon pumped into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, to shift the pain to poor countries. An Indian newspaper called the leaders’ absences "a snub to the developed nations" and said the Asian giants "are not willing to take the bait."

Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, speaking with Lew at the Brookings event, wondered why countries such as India are apparently dragging their feet when it comes to curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

"I don’t understand how anybody can look at this and not say, we’re all going to be engulfed by this," he said.

But the fact is that even countries that had been making great progress on curbing emissions, such as the United States, appear to be going backward: U.S. carbon emissions rose last year as dirty coal seeped back into the power mix after a few years of being displaced by cheap natural gas.

Big countries in Europe, despite plenty of green pledges in recent years, have struggled to rein in emissions; Germany, for instance, has spent billions of dollars on renewable energy yet will miss its emissions-reductions goals for 2020. The optimism that prevailed as recently as last year that the global economy could keep growing while emissions tailed off now seems to have been a mirage.

To be sure, all the rhetoric about climate change is translating into some action, even among the countries that are skipping the U.N. event. China, for example, wants to cut back its addiction to coal, mostly because local air pollution has become a political liability for Beijing.

China and scores of other countries joined more than 1,000 businesses in calling for a price on carbon emissions, the World Bank said Monday, and Chinese leaders have already said they will try to implement a national cap-and-trade program. Still, doubts prevail over whether the Chinese effort to price carbon pollution will be any more successful than the halfhearted European effort.

In the end, despite the hundreds of declarations, speeches, and high-blown rhetoric that will come out of the U.N. summit Tuesday, the world is living, as Jack Lew said, in a golden age of fossil fuels. For all the warnings about climate change’s costs and challenges, that alone makes it increasingly unlikely that countries rich or poor will be able to summon the political will needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions. 

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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