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:




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