U.S.-China Climate Deal and “Hyperbolic Congratulations”

Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently made a fair point in the Washington Post about the U.S.-China climate deal that I want to recognize. While conceding that the hype surrounding the deal amounts to “hyperbolic congratulations (‘game-changer‘, ‘historical‘, ‘this century’s most significant agreement‘),” he goes on to insist that:

It is also wrong to fix narrowly on the two-degree benchmark. It is a laudable goal, and one that is technically achievable, but by most honest reckonings, is politically implausible. And the difference between other amounts of warming – say between two degrees and three and four – could be dramatic. An agreement that cuts emissions is worthwhile even if it doesn’t deliver the two degree goal.

To be sure, none of this makes the deal the “gamechanger” that some people have heralded, or means that it will “save the world” as others have claimed. Critics and enthusiasts of climate diplomacy alike focus too much on super-high standards when assessing climate agreements. Supporters have wrongly obsessed with achieving a comprehensive global climate treaty, and their opponents have gloated when attempts to negotiate such an agreement have inevitably failed. (A corollary: Those who welcomed the U.S.-China announcement primarily as a sign that a big global treaty might be possible next year are missing its main point.) Just as Cold War arms control never eliminated the risk of nuclear war, even as it substantially reduced nuclear dangers, so climate diplomacy can help the world by reducing the risks of global warming, even as it never rids the planet of them. That’s the right standard by which to judge the big U.S.-China climate announcement – and, by that measure, the deal is a genuine success.

Again, fair point…



Updating Schoolhouse Rock in an Era of Dysfunction

I’m gonna go out on a limb and predict that, after all the hemming and hawing, we will ultimately end up with immigration reform in the form of legislation in the coming Congress–if not in one major bill, then in piecemeal confidence-building efforts. It seems the only other options for congressional Republicans boil down to either letting the President’s action go unchecked or to check it with escalating punitive obstruction which will be gratifying in the immediate term, but ultimately detrimental to their own newly resurgent (and precarious) prestige. Another option is a legal challenge which might ultimately succeed, but perhaps not within a time horizon relevant to the present conflict. As an aside, a legal challenge may still prove attractive if it adds momentum to the 2016 presidential contest.

In the meantime, SNL has demonstrated yet again that its true calling is not the quirky, slightly raunchy humor to which it often resorts, but political satire. Here is an update to the Schoolhouse Rock classic “I’m Just a Bill”:


A Classic(al) Response to the President’s Plan

President Obama will finally announce his intended executive actions on immigration tonight at 8/7 central after a dinner with congressional Democrats. You will be able to catch that live here.

Meanwhile Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) can keep us entertained with a speech from Cicero, originally delivered in 63 B.C., modified for this occasion:



UPDATE: Here is President Obama’s address.

Obama’s executive action:

— Delays the deportation of the undocumented parents of children who are in the country legally.

— It also protects any children who were brought to this country illegally before January 1, 2010.

— It directs immigration officials to concentrate on deporting criminals and those who pose a threat to national security.

Best line:

“But even as we focus on deporting criminals, the fact is that millions of immigrants in every state, of every race and nationality still live here illegally. And let’s be honest: tracking down, rounding up,  and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic. Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t being straight with you.”



Deportations and the Limits of Executive Discretion

As I often explain to my students, Presidents can uncontroversially direct administrative agencies to do those things which lay within the agencies’ congressionally defined authority. But the question arises as to how far this power can be taken before it intrudes upon the province of the legislative branch. (See the Montesquieuan notion of a separation of legislative and executive authority). After all, the President’s Constitutional charge is not to make law, but to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” (Art II, Sec. 3). Due to the failure of Congress to pass the long-awaited, much-debated Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill, the President is set to announce tomorrow his plan to take executive action to suspend the deportation of up to 5 million persons in the country illegally. Here’s a good summary of the issue:

While some prominent folks have argued that this action is certainly lawful, others have argued with equal certitude that it is unlawful. What is more interesting is that President Obama has seemed to occupy both camps over the last few years (though, as the Washington Post reported yesterday, he denies changing his position). See this clip below from 2011 where the President responds to a question about whether he has the authority to halt deportations:

Then, as late as 2013, President Obama again denies he has such authority:

Though this issue is certainly debatable, the most damning condemnation of Mr. Obama’s planned use of executive authority may be the President himself.

Perhaps, it was this drunken satirical exchange with Mitch McConnell that provoked this change:



Climate Coup?

So, it is good to know I am in good company in my lack of enthusiasm about the US-China climate agreement. Regulation scholar Marc Eisner offered this round-up on his blog today:

There are plenty of reasons why one should be skeptical as to China’s ability/willingness to meet its own commitments, as Tyler Cowen (Marginal Revolution) suggests.

With respect to the US, there is no binding treaty on climate that can be submitted to the Senate (for obvious reasons). Everything rests on historical trends in greenhouse gas emissions relative to GDP—the Bush administration’s “greenhouse gas intensity” much ridiculed by environmentalists—and the ability of the EPA to achieve reductions via rules grounded in decades-old statutory authority. Even if the Obama EPA is committed to climate policy, it is not clear that future presidents will appoint administrators with a comparable commitment. More importantly, Congress has proven unwilling in the past to pass new statutes to directly address climate change and quite willing to use the appropriations process to shape regulatory actions. See the Economist’s coverage here.

Bottom line: I find it difficult to conclude that the climate agreement will amount to much in the long run, despite the breathless claims of its historic importance. Ultimately, it is difficult to see how we bring about significant reductions in greenhouse gases without increasing the price of carbon-based fuels, and the most effective means of doing this is  a carbon tax. In the currently political environment, the likelihood of a carbon tax is quite limited.

So Marc, Mckayla, and I are not impressed…

Not Impressed China Climate Deal



A Chocolate-less World or Higher Prices?

There have been lots of news stories lately indicating that “We are running out of chocolate”. Particularly, two companies, Mars and Barry Callebaut, have come out and supported this statement. (See examples, here, here and here.) The fear is that there will soon be not enough production of cocoa compared to what is demanded. On the demand side of things, countries other than those in Europe and America are beginning to love chocolate, such as China. Further, there is an increase in demand for “healthy” chocolate or dark chocolate. Dark chocolate has on average 50% more cocoa than the traditional milk chocolate bars. On the supply side, there is a decrease in production mostly attributable to frosty pod, a fungal disease that has wiped out 30-40% of cocoa production in South America. (The fungus eats the cocoa pod and leaves them at a total loss.)  This has shifted most (70%) of the world’s cocoa production to Africa, which is experiencing extremely dry temperatures. In addition, environmental pressures on cocoa farms have led to an increase in production costs.


As a result, there consumers should expect two effects. One, agricultural groups are trying to develop new trees and technologies to increase the amount of cocoa beans. However, a tree variation likely means a change in the taste of chocolate. Second, we eat 70,000 metric tons of cocoa more than what is produced each year and an expectation of 1,000,000 metric tons by 2020. So, prices will be expected to rise on chocolate. The truth is, we are less likely to “run out of chocolate” if the price mechanism is permitted to rise, i.e. if the government does not cap chocolate prices at some nominal level. Rather, supply and demand determines the equilibrium market price.  There is little evidence of government setting chocolate prices around the world, but it is something consumers should be wary about. Personally, I would rather pay $10/bar of chocolate than live in a world where there is a shortage of chocolate.


Merely a Matter of Political Will?

Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic joined the chorus of policy folks lauding the grand accomplishment of the Obama Administration in reaching a bilateral climate deal with Chinese President Xi Jingping:

Obama’s other non-failure came late on Tuesday night, when, while traveling in Asia, he announced that he’d secured a major agreement on climate change with the Chinese. The U.S. is the world’s second largest producer of greenhouse gases. China is the first. But Chinese officials have sometimes resisted calls for reducing carbon emissions, because they said China was still a developing nation that needed to burn carbon fuels in order to modernize its economy. Here in the U.S., conservatives cited that resistance as reason the U.S. should not act to reduce its emissions. Why bother, the argument went, when the Chinese wouldn’t agree to do something about their carbon problem?

Cohn cites his colleague Rebecca Leber to the same effect. Leber, while conceding that “This probably isn’t enough to reach the drastic cuts scientists say are needed to limit rising global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsiusthe level of warming policymakers say is acceptable,”  notes that we should be consoled by the assurance that US-China leadership will inspire other states to step up:

Other countries will announce their own intended targets through the first few months of next year, and from there, negotiators and activists hope to pressure countries to commit to even more. “The U.S. and China should make it a race to the top, catalyzing other countries to announce their targets and build momentum leading up to Paris,” World Resources Institute Climate Program Director Jennifer Morgan said in a statement. Europe has already announced a target of at least 40 percent cuts over 1990 levels by 2030. Will India, another major polluter, be next?

I am still not sure this deal is as great as the hype attached to it. Consider four points:

1. President Xi has certainly promised more than China is prepared to deliver (though tackling air quality must be a major priority for the country which has essentially passed through at least one hundred years of industrialization in the span of a generation).

2. President Obama has certainly promised more than he can deliver under existing U.S. law, and he is highly unlikely to get much passed in this Congress.

3. Points 1 and 2 are certainly a signal to other states that symbolic measures are the name of the game.

4. Even if all concerned adopt and implement these targets, there is still the issue, summed up by Chris Hope that:

assuming the rest of the OECD matches the US’s actions of a 28% cut by 2025 (with the EU cutting by 40% as before), and the rest of the developing world matches China’s pledge to stop increasing emissions by 2030…, the chance of staying below 2degC in 2100 rises to 1.1%, and the mean impacts in 2100 are now about $19 trillion.

Investments in emissions-reducing technology are important. Governments are prudent to invest in them, especially when, as in China, cleaner technologies have the immediate health effects China is hoping to achieve. On the other hand, given the very present costs of these investments and the remote and speculative nature of their benefits, a certain degree of apprehension about going full-bore is to be expected and should not be interpreted as a mere lack of political will to address climate change. A lack of gung-ho enthusiasm to “Act Now!” and a resistance to the accruing of certain present costs for uncertain future gains is not a sign of benightedness; rather, it is a natural and often beneficial human response. Those of us eager to protect the planet should avoid casting every person not fully persuaded of the righteousness of our cause as an enemy-subversive.

That being said, some politicians make great targets for their handling of the public policy debate. Below, Colbert makes great sport of a select group of Republican lawmakers: