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…



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



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:



Global Politics and Climate Change: At Least We’re Doing Something???

Foreign Policy reported today on the ambitious US-China deal to dramatically reduce each country’s greenhouse gas emissions:

Under the terms of the deal, nine months in the making, the United States promises to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025, compared to 2005 levels. Previously, the United States had said it would lower emissions by 17 percent, also compared to 2005; the agreement hammered out in Beijing expands that commitment, marking the first time Obama has set emission reduction targets beyond 2020.

Some commentators have pointed out that Congress will never back the new targets given the likely economic impact and the prevalence of climate change skepticism in the US. Many believe that the targets are merely symbolic and not likely to be fulfilled. But perhaps the point is to aim big and hope to achieve more thereby than would be otherwise?

What always comes to my mind as I hear the constant back-and-forth over whether climate change is real or to what extent it is anthropogenic is that this debate is practically moot given another sad reality–even the most drastic measures we can take with present technology are not likely to significantly impact global temperatures. Even if the world economy acted as a single entity and formed the conviction to pay any price short of collectively going Amish, the trend in global temperature inexorably marches on.

When climate change analyst Chris Hope blogged about the negligible projected impact of the US-China emissions targets on global temperature trends, commenters pushed back. Hope replied:

[Update added 12:20 on 12 November 2014]: Some have commented that assuming the rest of the world continues on the A1B business as usual path is unduly pessimistic. So I have repeated the analysis 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. The underlying message remains the same: These pledges are only the first step on a very long road.

The long road includes technology which is not presently feasible. Perhaps efforts now will lead to the development of technology which can make a difference. But we should not kid ourselves that any heroically sacrificial feat we can accomplish at present is fixing the planet. That ship apparently sailed as soon the world stopped… sailing.