Sunday, June 03, 2007

Climate Change Policy


Since Bush announced that he will pursue a side-agreement as an alternative to the Kyoto Protocol at the G-8 summit this week, there's been a lot of misinformation floating around the internet, including misleading statements from the US government. The right, of course, wants to show how the US stance on Kyoto is ultimately Clinton's fault. But the left, also erroneously, wants to demonstrate how it's Bush's sole fault.

Some historical facts are in order. If you need the basics on the science of climate change, there's no better place to start than here at RealClimate. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change also provides good information on the basics as well as more advanced downloadable documents.

The good news about Bush's proposal is that the administration has finally decided - last in the world to do so - that global warming is real and anthropogenic (and note the uncertainty range in the graph above - "scientific uncertainty" was the basis for denying the reality of climate change). I guess their calls for "more research" finally panned out. But they've replaced that stalling tactic with a new one.

The central problems for the US regarding the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed by the US in 1998 but never ratified (the latter is necessary for an international agreement to become binding, though the US has broken plenty of other binding agreements over the past six years) are:
  • that the US views ratification of Kyoto as not in its national interests. This position assumes that a) national interests are synonymous with economic interests; b) that there is no technological alternative for economic growth [also a value assumption] to increasing emissions; and c) that only national interests matter when it comes to climate change.
  • that developing countries excluded from the first round of Kyoto should have been included, especially China and India, along with the developed Annex I countries.
172 countries have ratified the Kyoto Protocol to date, but effective policy action has always been held up by US intransigence, given that it is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases whether one measures by total emissions or per capita emissions. Carbon dioxide emissions represent the largest GhG with industry and transportation being the largest sources of CO2 emissions. The implication is that control of emissions means drastic policy changes for industry and transportation. Residential changes (say, conversion to solar energy technologies) would impact, at the wildest limit, 17% of total US emissions.


China, today, is the second largest carbon dioxide emitter, but only if measured by absolute emissions for the country. Per capita emissions remain quite low (Americans are responsible for five times the CO2 emissions per capita), although they are rapidly rising as China's economy continues to boom and produce a mass-consumer class. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Chinese remain poor - poverty entails lower consumption, which entails less pollution, at least per capita.

The basic argument from the developing nations is that, given the disproportional emissions on the part of the industrialized countries - which are a direct result of industrialization or modernization of their economies - to call for regulation on emissions from developing nations is to unfairly disadvantage their own industrialization or economic growth. In other words, it is a luxury to have modernized economically, while producing the majority of emissions, and now demand of economically developing nations that they reel in emissions (and thus, by implication, halt their economic growth or experiment with new technologies, something which the US in particular has been wont to do). This is, of course, not perceived to be in developing countries' economic interests by those countries.

As some of the bloggers on the right correctly point out, the 1997 Byrd-Hagel Resolution (S. Res. 98) on which the US Senate voted 95-0 stated that the US would not ratify any agreement that would harm the "national interests" of the United States. Read: "economic interests." But this was not a binding legal rejection of the Protocol. A Simple Resolution (abbreviated "S. Res.") in the Senate is a non-binding political statement of the Senate's general views on a given matter. As bloggers on the right often do not note, President Clinton, knowing thus that the chances of ratification were basically nil, never submitted the Protocol to Congress for ratification. In other words, he was not willing to submit the Protocol to final defeat.

Nearly immediately after taking office, Bush hammered the nail in the coffin of US participation in Kyoto by stating that the US would never ratify the Protocol. Although Clinton was hindered by Senate reluctance and thus, politically, was unable and/or unwilling to submit the Protocol, Bush flatly rejected it and all hope of US participation. The reasons were the two noted in the bullets above. As comparative rejections of Kyoto go, Bush's was a flat statement of rejection. There is absolutely no argument to be had on this.

Now, Kyoto is not a panacea. It was, as my friend Richard Benedick (architect of the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer) says, "a product of game theory." It ultimately calls for a global 5% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2012, which will hardly make a dent in the problem of global warming. Moreover, emissions have increased during the period since Kyoto, the US hardly containing itself at all, even if there are a number of promising local and state measures.

Finally, it appears most countries won't even make their own individual commitments. What Kyoto did do, however, is put climate change on the map as a serious problem requiring serious normative commitments. Without US participation, whether during the Clinton years or the Bush years, those commitments have lagged.

Current discussion about climate change mitigation turns on whether we ought to focus, rather, on adaptation to the effects of climate change. This new focus is fatalistic - likely realistically so, unfortunately - but also gives up on the least developed countries and Small Island States which are and will be most affected by the consequences of climate change. This is an unforgivable ethical shortcoming because those who have contributed least to the problem will face the most dire consequences. Countries that have generated the problem, like the US, largely look the other way. Adaptation might be a necessary strategy, but it cannot be a sufficient one.

Any future agreement that really does mitigate climate change will require the participation of the US, the largest emitter, as well as China, the fastest growing emitter. The US has made Chinese participation a condition of its own participation, mostly because the US fears Chinese economic dominance. This concern was less pronounced at Rio in 1992 (the UNFCCC, from which the Protocol was developed) and is much more so now. The concern with Chinese emissions is a very real one, but the conditionality of Chinese participation in any climate change regime is used politically by the US to deflect its own obligations.

Bush now proposes an alternative agreement to the UN process through an endless series of meetings designed to outline individual nation efforts. He is a fan of "voluntary measures" to reduce emissions, which he will apparently also propose at the G-8 summit. We need only look to Bush's time as governor of Texas, where he also favored voluntary efforts, to see the effects of that policy.
Texas, where coal barely edges out cleaner natural gas as the top power source, belches almost 1 1/2 trillion pounds of carbon dioxide yearly. That's more than every nation in the world except six: the United States, China, Russia, Japan, India and Germany.

2 comments:

Rodger said...

Nice post.

I was particularly impressed by your mentioning Richard Benedick as a friend. I taught from the linked book a number of times.

What's he up to these days?

helmut said...

Thanks. Yeah, Richard is a friend. I teach a grad seminar on International Environmental Agreements and have him come in every year for a talk. He now spends his time between Maryland and Germany. His US base is the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Joint Global Change Research Institute.