The global warming debate has raged for more than a decade, at its most extreme pitting crusaders warning the end of the world is nigh against naysayers proclaiming the whole thing a hoax. The debate can still get quite heated at times (so to speak) but over the past few years a middle ground has emerged in which most scientific and economic experts concede that humans are having some kind of effect on the climate. It is not clear just what we can do about it, however, and, in any case, none of the options are free. Meanwhile, pundits and public officials alike fail to recognize—or paper over—many of the basic, unavoidable choices they will have to make.
As a result, the most likely outcome is that demographic trends and economic interests will determine the climate change policies each government adopts. Those policies in turn will shape international negotiations and, in aggregate, will ultimately define the world’s policy on global warming. Governments of sovereign states almost always act in their own national interest, and climate change policy is no exception. Understanding what really drives national policies and why these factors are so hard to change will help us recognize our real range of options for dealing with global warming, and will also help us predict how international negotiations will actually play out.
What We (Think We) Know
Most (but not all) climate scientists agree that average global temperatures are rising in large part because “greenhouse gases” have been accumulating in the atmosphere. These greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, water vapor and synthetic compounds like fluorocarbons. Once in the atmosphere, greenhouse gases gradually warm the earth by trapping solar energy that would otherwise be reflected back into space. The current consensus (again, with a few dissenters) also believes that humans are largely responsible for the recent buildup of these gases. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has recorded steadily rising atmospheric concentrations for almost fifty years, now being 20 percent higher than when NOAA started measuring in 1959.
All agree that the largest source of human-produced greenhouse gases is the burning of fossil fuels—mainly coal, oil and natural gas—because these fuels produce carbon dioxide as a combustion byproduct. Industry also releases greenhouse gases in the form of solvents that evaporate during manufacturing processes. So does agriculture, mainly in the form of methane from fertilizers, plowed fields and, yes, animal flatulence. Agriculture also reduces tree cover that would otherwise absorb greenhouse gases.
That is pretty much what we know. No matter what some widely publicized accounts claim, we do not know for certain how much or how fast global warming will proceed. The models are not yet sophisticated enough to tell us, and though we are collecting more environmental data than ever, there are still significant gaps. We do not know for sure the mix of natural and anthropogenic causes of global warming, for the geological record does not permit the required precision at a high level of statistical confidence. We do not know the relationship between warming and hurricanes, droughts or floods with any precision (though every bad weather cycle invariably brings out pundits who claim they do). And we do not know how to reliably price remedial interventions because we do not know how to measure their effects with any reasonable degree of accuracy.
Climate science, then, is a useful but limited guide for policy. What we actually do know quite a bit about, however, is the relationship between development, demography and energy use. Moreover, this is the relationship most critical to understanding the international diplomacy of global warming, as it will likely play out. Countries fashion global warming proposals that align with their own inherent advantages, and they reject proposals that do not.
To understand how governments have responded to global warming, it helps to keep some basic trends and facts in mind. Figure 1 tracks global temperatures as measured by the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, the British government’s weather service, which has published some of the most widely cited studies of climate change. These temperatures have been generally rising, and they generally follow the historical growth in energy consumption as measured by the Correlates of War Project, one of the most widely used historical data bases of national industrial capabilities and economic output.11.
The Correlates of War project measures nation-by-nation annual energy consumption. This consumption is almost entirely made up of coal, gas and oil. Five percent or less is hydroelectric over the entire period recorded. After 1960, up to 5 percent is nuclear power. Geothermal, solar and wind power account for 1 percent or less. But the two trend lines do not track perfectly; indeed, there is some unexplained variance that is quite disconcerting. For example, from 1850 to 1880, energy consumption increased little, but temperatures increased significantly. Between 1880 and 1910, energy use doubled, and yet temperatures actually declined. From about 1935 to 1965, fossil fuel consumption doubled, but global temperatures remained essentially flat. Scientists would argue that thirty years is a very short time in terms of climate, and so it is. But it is a very long time in politics and economics.
Most people probably do not realize that most estimates of greenhouse gas production are not based on actual emissions from individual sources, like factories or cars. As noted, scientists do measure gross atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, and they have tried to estimate past levels by such means as analyzing gases trapped in polar ice core samples. But current emission rates, at both the aggregate national level and from large individual facilities like power plants, are almost always extrapolated from fuel consumption and energy production—with adjustments for the kind of fuel being burned and the efficiency of the plant in question.
Similarly, most restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions would actually take the form of regulations on the various forms of fuel consumption, with some allowance for mitigation measures like planting trees or technologies for capturing carbon. Since proposals to control greenhouse gases are really proposals for regulating fuel consumption, the lack of a tight correlation between historical fossil fuel use and observed changes in global temperatures is problematic, to say the least. Officials cannot really give good answers to such basic questions as what costs citizens must bear to achieve a specific reduction in global warming. This is part of the uncertainty in the field of climate change that allows countries to fashion proposals that suit their own tastes or interests, and still appear reasonable—because, given our current modest level of knowledge, they are within the range of reason.
This is not the only opportunity for political interests to assert themselves without straining the available science. All—repeat, all—proposals to regulate greenhouse gases contain one or more parameters that are essentially arbitrary. These include, for example, the base year from which reductions should be measured, the rate at which reductions should occur, the size of reductions to be achieved, the allocation of these reductions and how to measure them. These parameters inevitably are based as much on politics as on science.
Comparing the two trend lines in Figure 1 can also give one a sense of the scale of potential regulatory measures that are at stake. It is ironic that many of the officials who are most concerned about climate change seem also the most sanguine about our ability to solve the problem. If one were really serious about cutting fossil fuel consumption to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, however, the data suggest that the task would be very difficult. Figure 1 indicates that if we wanted to return to the environment of, say, the 1960s, we would need about a 50 percent reduction in fossil fuel consumption—an extraordinary reduction, no matter how it is handled. And that does not even consider how to accommodate countries that have industrialized since the 1960s, not to speak of those yet to do so.
None of the various policy formulas that have been proposed alters this reality. For example, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and similar proposals to limit greenhouse gases include trading systems that allow industries to “buy” rights to emit. Trading systems can in theory produce an efficient allocation of regulatory costs, but they cannot by themselves answer the question of what the overall emission levels should be, how hard it will be to achieve them from a technical perspective, or how much it will cost the world, in aggregate, to achieve them.
Similarly, some argue that a carbon tax and trading system would provide incentives that lead to new technologies that produce fewer greenhouse gases. This is a misunderstanding of both economics and technology. Economic incentives may be a necessary condition for innovation, but they cannot guarantee it. At least two other outcomes are possible. One is that the economy might simply decline as productive activities are regulated into unprofitability, and no technology is discovered to fill the gap, as happened when stringent environmental restrictions resulted in a shortage of oil refineries. The other is that industry might adapt in ways that accommodate the tax or regulation but that do not reduce greenhouse gases, as happened when U.S. auto companies built more vehicles defined, often disingenuously, as “trucks” to get around fuel mileage standards that applied only to cars.
Many technical problems have defied solution even though governments have undertaken “Manhattan Projects” (the central planner’s strategy) or offered incentives (the free marketer’s approach). One can push technology development only so far. Development often depends on the simple accumulation of knowledge, and sometimes even random chance. The more one bases a policy on accelerating the historical rate at which technology is developed and adopted, the greater the risks one takes.
The issue of how to allocate the costs of controlling climate change is the easier part of the problem. The more difficult question, as I have suggested, concerns the total cost the world is willing to accept to manage climate change. This is the difference between deciding how to slice the pie and what size the pie should be to begin with. Put another way, the more important question concerns how much economic development the world is willing to forgo or put at risk for the sake of protecting the environment, or of returning it to an earlier, more pristine state. That is precisely where politics enters the picture—where, in other words, demographic trends and economic interests shape the positions that countries take in international negotiations.
To see how this works, observe Figure 2, which depicts shares of greenhouse gases produced since 1980. The chart shows, as has been widely reported, that the United States generates more greenhouse gases than any other country. But the chart also illustrates a fact that gets much less publicity: The amount of greenhouse gases we produce has increased little over the past quarter century. And almost all the growth in greenhouse gas emissions during the past decade has been from developing countries—in particular, from China.
This is because, historically, when nations have begun to industrialize, the greenhouse gases they produce on a per capita basis increase quickly. As economies mature, per capita energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions with it, reaches a plateau. Energy efficiency improves as a country industrializes. Dirty industries like first-generation manufacturing move to countries with lower labor rates until they, too, learn how to make products more efficiently and more cleanly—or offload dirty industries to countries that are in an even earlier state of development. This pattern has been true for virtually all industrializing countries beginning with Britain in the early 1800s.
This fact is reflected in Figure 3, which tracks the per capita output of greenhouse gases for several countries. Though the United States is often criticized for being ever more profligate, in reality the quantity of greenhouse gases the average American emits has not changed significantly since 1980. The small increase that the nation as a whole emits (about 1 percent per year) owes entirely to a growing population. Per capita emissions by European countries have changed little, too, despite Kyoto.
Meanwhile, the decline in greenhouse gases from the former USSR reflects the collapse and extensive de-industrialization of the old Soviet economy. It also suggests what a 30–40 percent emissions reduction over the course of a decade could do to industrialized countries. It is not a pretty picture.
One interesting feature of Figure 3 is how Canada’s per capita carbon dioxide emission levels closely follow those of the United States. This is to be expected because, however much it may trouble our famously independent neighbor to the north, the United States and Canada are geographic and demographic twins, and our per capita rates of fuel consumption have both been driven by the impact of distance and the level of economic development. Canada’s per capita energy consumption has tracked with U.S. levels since the middle of the 20th century, when the Canadian standard of living and per capita GDP approached our own.
The chart also shows that China’s per capita greenhouse gas production has just begun to take off, and that India is still in the early stages of industrialization. Notice that per capita energy consumption in the EU, despite its adoption of Kyoto, has also remained flat.
To see the final piece of the picture of what shapes the positions countries take on climate change, look at Figure 4, a table that shows the sizes and growth rates of the populations of ten representative countries. The important thing to notice here concerns the differences in growth rates. In short, what goes on in negotiation rooms has a lot to do with what goes on in the bedroom.
For example, the Kyoto Protocol required industrial states to reduce emissions, measured at the national level, 5 percent below 1990 levels. More recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed at the 2007 G-8 economic summit that all countries agree to reduce emissions, measured at the national level, by 50 percent from the 1990 levels by 2050. European leaders could readily accept such limits (echoed in the non-binding resolution adopted by the G-8 this year) because there will likely be fewer Europeans producing such emissions. Current projections tell us that the population of Germany, for instance, will be about 15 percent smaller by 2050. So it was easy for Germany to adopt the Kyoto limits or Merkel’s proposed ceilings: Demographic trends alone would get Germany much of the way to the targets, and incremental technologies would do the rest. One can also understand now why Russia signed on to Kyoto. It not only has a shrinking population but also a smaller, less industrial economy compared to 1990.
The crunch occurs if a country is industrializing, has a growing population, or both. This is why China (which did not object to Kyoto because, as a developing country, it was not covered) resisted Merkel’s proposal even more vociferously than did the United States. Similarly, Indian leaders said they will only go along with a global warming treaty if it recognizes that a country is a low polluter on a per capita basis—as opposed to Merkel’s proposal, which requires cuts from a country’s current base regardless of size or per capita data. It is also why the United States, Canada and Australia, the three developed countries that rejected the Kyoto Protocol in one form or another, or at one time or another, happen to be the only ones in that category with growing populations.
In short, the positions countries have taken on global warming, almost without exception, are defined largely by their state of development and their demographics. Everyone understands the climate change problem, but no country has adopted measures to cope with it that would jeopardize its own economic well-being. Indeed, governments design “solutions” to global warming that will cause them the least pain in terms of adjustment. So now we can understand why the U.S. Senate rejected the Kyoto Protocol by a vote of 95–0: The absence of a “Made in the EU” label on the treaty did not prevent senators from understanding, at least implicitly, where it came from and whose interests it accommodated.
The negotiating record of the past decade strongly suggests that basic economic and demographic realities will continue to shape the positions governments take on big issues like development and climate change. These positions could bedevil traditional alignments, like the partnership between the United States and Europe, and create new ones, like the mutual interest in accommodating economic and population growth that China, India and the United States now share.
From the perspective of U.S. national security, it is as important to anticipate how events are likely to play out as how we might like them to play out—perhaps even more important. Countries like China and India (as well as Pakistan, Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and a host of other populous countries) are simply unlikely to forego development in the face of the enormous political risks of doing so. Experts, such as those at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, may say that the risks of not foregoing at least some development will be even greater, predicting that millions of people will lose their homes as ocean levels rise, diseases will spread as tropical regions expand, and entire species of valuable plants and animals will go extinct because of habitat loss. Yet those arguments are unlikely to persuade governments.
Indeed, the hazards the IPCC warns of—displacement, disease and species extinction—are exactly the risks China is accepting as a result of the Three Gorges Dam, which China will bring into operation across the Yangtze River next year. The dam will inundate two cities, 1,351 villages and displace 1.1 million people. Despite years of effort, environmentalists and other opponents failed utterly to affect the Chinese government’s decision to proceed. Chinese officials have maintained that the dam is critical for economic development—case closed, no further discussion needed.
One can expect the Chinese government to have similar views on climate change, and in fact, it has already expressed such views. When Merkel presented her plan at the 2007 G-8 meeting, China offered its own proposal (the first Chinese policy to address climate change). The proposal would commit China to improve its energy efficiency by 20 percent from 2005 levels and increase forest coverage by 1.8 percent by 2010. The Chinese government also said that China would increase cooperation with other developing countries “within the framework of South-South cooperation.” It committed “to do what we can to help African countries and small island developing states build capacity to tackle climate change.” In effect, Beijing told Merkel and anyone who sympathized with her views to butt out—with enough boats, everybody’s going to make it.
In reality, the positions all governments take on controlling greenhouse gases, no matter how altruistically they are cast, will inevitably reflect such parochial interests—and it is often hard to say that one plan is objectively better than another. For example, the United States could propose that, instead of reducing national emission levels, as Merkel did, the world should adopt per capita reductions. This would effectively align us with China’s and India’s positions. And one could reduce total greenhouse gases just as effectively that way—in fact, more quickly so, to the extent that individuals and companies in developed countries are prepared to share more efficient production methods with their counterparts in developing countries. Indeed, per capita metrics are arguably more environmentally friendly than aggregate national ones. The U.S. GDP has grown about three times faster than its consumption of energy and output of greenhouse gases over the past three decades: That would seem to be the very definition of “sustainable growth.”
Defining a ceiling on a per capita basis rather than a national basis is no more arbitrary than, say, choosing to cut greenhouse gases from 1990 levels rather than from 1995 levels. (Russia has no problem with the former, but would have lots of problems with the latter.) Similarly, France agreed to the EU proposal only when it was given credit for its nuclear plants. (France generates 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, which is one of the few proven ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on an industrial scale.) But France built most of these plants in the 1980s, so it has already used up that option, an approach other EU members plan to employ in the near future.
The question is always about the total burden and how it is to be distributed. That isn’t a question of science; it’s a question of politics. The issue is who pays the price for the fix, and, not surprisingly, everyone wants to shift as much of the cost as they can onto somebody else. The cold, hard fact is that the developing world cannot reach Western standards of living without exacerbating global warming. There is no technology that allows us to avoid this reality, nor any policy that would enable developed countries to painlessly accommodate the growth of developing countries.
So if the inevitable outcome is that global temperatures will rise, American leaders must prepare. Populations might gradually adjust, as they have to major climate change in the past. Or climate change may cause conflicts and natural disasters. Those who say climate change will certainly be a catastrophe are overstating the available knowledge, just as those who claim global warming will produce net benefits are understating the uncertainties. When it comes to the political effects of climate change, uncertainty is probably the only thing we can count on.
The Correlates of War project measures nation-by-nation annual energy consumption. This consumption is almost entirely made up of coal, gas and oil. Five percent or less is hydroelectric over the entire period recorded. After 1960, up to 5 percent is nuclear power. Geothermal, solar and wind power account for 1 percent or less.