Academic journal article Policy Review

A Climate Policy for the Real World

Academic journal article Policy Review

A Climate Policy for the Real World

Article excerpt

GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS WORLDWIDE are trying to put the best face on the 2010 United Nations climate change negotiations in Cancun, especially after 2009's debacle in Copenhagen. But the talks produced little real progress and led many to wonder whether the two global climate meetings represent a necessary, albeit somewhat sideways step in the long process towards an eventual global treaty reducing greenhouse gases or, alternatively, the gradual and unsurprising end to a nearly twenty-year effort to achieve binding international mandates.

Advocates of a binding global treaty on greenhouse gas emissions are divided over the importance of the new agreement coming out of Cancun. For any who might harbor doubts, the Obama administration's approach to the negotiations is revealing: Neither the president nor the secretary of state (nor the vice president, for that matter) traveled to Mexico, leaving the negotiations in the hands of State Department Special Envoy Todd Stern. Key congressional leaders also skipped this year's talks.

The administration's reduced emphasis on the UN meetings, and continuing international disagreements over climate change, demonstrate an uncomfortable fact for many greens: U.S. efforts to stem climate change thus far have largely vindicated the Bush administration's approach to global action on climate change during its final years. The failures of the high-profile Copenhagen talks--and of U.S. domestic legislation--reflect structural political and economic realities that will be profoundly difficult to overcome, if they can be overcome at all. Obama would do well to understand the lessons of Copenhagen and cap-and-trade and move on to a more practical approach--especially after the 2010 midterm elections.

The pragmatic wing of the activist community has cautiously praised the Cancun summit, which produced a deal that brought a voluntary international climate agreement reached on the margins in Copenhagen inside the UN process and created a fund to help poor developing countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and manage the consequences of a warming Earth. At the other end of the spectrum, the climate movement's doctrinaire ideologues have denounced the talks' failure to produce a binding agreement on deep reductions. They are all the more bitter after the Copenhagen fiasco, years of resentment of the Bush administration's approach, and earlier surety that the Democrats controlling the White House and the Congress would accomplish what the prior Republican president was unwilling to try. The fact that they have no "Plan B" for addressing the climate problem--and apparently cannot conceive of a solution other than unprecedented and therefore very unlikely global regulation--only adds to their frustration.

Equally troubling to both of these camps is the Kyoto Protocol's looming expiration in 2012, with its results limited and no follow-on arrangements in place. Since Kyoto's modest emissions targets were secondary to its goal of establishing a global system for deeper future reductions, supporters of binding international targets and timetables for emissions are alarmed by the relentless ticking of the clock.

Compounding activists' worries is the refusal of key parties to the Kyoto Protocol--including Japan and Russia--to agree to an extension through a new so-called "commitment period." Japan sensibly refuses to accept deeper emissions reductions without commitments from the United States and China. Russia--whose ratification brought Kyoto across the threshold that made the pact legally binding--seems more interested in its ability to sell emissions credits than in preventing climate change. Moscow was an enormous beneficiary of Kyoto's 1990 base year for measuring emissions reductions; the combination of the Soviet Union's vast and highly inefficient industrial base and Russia's subsequent economic collapse meant that the country did not have to do anything to meet its targets and could sell both its natural gas and its leftover emissions to Europe. …

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