As the last snowdrifts melt and the first of the crocuses shyly start to bloom in the landscaped grounds around stately Mead Manor in glamorous Queens, our little portion of the world is warming nicely. The news from the wider world suggests that this warming trend will continue for quite a while. Certainly the movement to stop climate change through a universal, legally binding global treaty won’t stop it.
That movement has ground to a juddering halt over the past five months. The weak final statement from the Copenhagen summit in January fell far short of expectations, which were already low. Since then the process has slowed even further. The resignation of Yvo de Boer, the top climate change official at the United Nations and the guiding spirit behind the attempt to craft a global treaty, and the statement by EU Commissioner for Climate Change Connie Hedegaard that no treaty is expected this year, reveal how much momentum the climate change movement has lost. Indeed, it looks increasingly likely that when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012 no new legal framework will replace it.
In the United States, too, the wheels have come off the wagon. Polling shows a continued decline in the proportion of Americans who believe both that climate change is real and is caused by human activity. The issue of climate change ranked dead last among 21 problems that Pew asked respondents to rate in order of their priority. The most important industry group prepared to work for cap-and-trade legislation has broken up; the loss of the Democratic supermajority in the Senate following the January 19 Massachusetts special election (and the general nervousness among Democrats) suggests, too, that Washington’s governing party has lost its appetite for sweeping environmental or energy legislation this year.
Since it’s likely that the next Congress will be more Republican than this one, comprehensive climate change legislation, whether in the form of a cap-and-trade system or any other form, probably has no chance of passing during President Obama’s first term. This means that the earliest possible date for a serious debate in Congress is January 2013. Feed that prospect back into the international negotiating timetable and it seems extremely unlikely that anything much can be done before then. Indeed, the very tentative and sketchy agreements already reached at Copenhagen could unravel.
In any case, the international negotiation has long since jumped the shark. The project is too grandiose, too unwieldy, and touches too deeply on too many different interests in too many countries to ever have had much chance of success. The concessions needed to coax recalcitrant countries into the treaty make it substantially harder for the treaty to get the necessary support in other places. One example: In order to get developing countries to agree to accept limits on their carbon use even prospectively, negotiators promised $100 billion in aid from advanced countries. Remember that treaties need a two-thirds majority to pass in the U.S. Senate—a significantly higher hurdle than the sixty votes needed for cloture. Remember also that the only time the Senate considered the ideas behind the Kyoto Protocol, back in July 1997, the vote was 95-0 against. A treaty that mandates tens of billions of dollars in new foreign aid every year while giving countries like India and China significant competitive advantages against American firms, all to address a problem that much of the public thinks doesn’t exist and that few people consider a top priority: Such a treaty will not pass. Since foreigners aren’t stupid, this means that negotiations on a treaty that will never come into force are unlikely to move quickly or elicit dramatic concessions.
Nonetheless, the effort to create a global governance structure for climate change will not end. This negotiation is much too big to fail in any simple way. There is so much money, bureaucratic momentum and political energy (not to mention valid scientific concern) behind the climate change movement that efforts to resuscitate the treaty process will continue for some time. None of the grieving relatives want to pull the plug, or even to be the first to suggest it.
The Kyoto-Copenhagen process did not need a scandal bearing on the sociology of science to cause it to founder and all but fail. But a scandal it got anyway, and it has underscored the nature of the political problem that climate-change remediation faces.
Although there has been a great deal of public attention paid to high-profile blunders by various scientists and institutions affiliated with the treaty movement, it is important to stress that a strategic rather than a scientific failure is what we are watching unfold today. What seems to have happened is this. Sincerely convinced that climate change represented a fundamental threat to the well-being of the human race, activists decided, probably without a clear knowledge of what would be involved, to try to address the problem as best they could. And inasmuch as the problem was global, it seemed to follow that a global solution was required.
Backed by what they believed was convincing scientific evidence, activists calculated that by assembling a coalition of potential winners—producers of “clean energy”, others who stood to gain from the creation of a market in carbon permits—plus a critical mass of concerned citizens in rich countries, they could push a climate agreement through the international system fairly quickly. This worked extremely well until recently. With Internet-assisted speed a worldwide movement, based primarily in northern Europe and North America but with a significant presence in many parts of the world, sprang up to lobby governments and politicians to act. A significant elite international consensus cohered in a very short time. Despite setbacks, like the Bush Administration’s failure to take the issue seriously, the larger movement also advanced with bewildering speed. Al Gore collected a Nobel Prize and an Oscar for his work in the field. When Americans replaced the skeptical George W. Bush with Barack Obama, a convinced and eloquent environmentalist, and gave him the largest Congressional majorities in modern times, it appeared that the last major obstacle to an effective global treaty had been swept away.
Then came the trouble. On the one hand, the process of elite discussion and agreement had to shift to one of action by states. Serious policy changes would have to be decided, and laws would have to be passed. It then very quickly became clear that the movement faced a serious collective action problem. Not only did advanced industrial democracies like the United States and the EU countries need to curb their emissions; developing countries like China, India and Brazil needed to commit to caps on the growth in their greenhouse gas emissions over the long term. Unless all major players took these steps together, the problem could not be solved.
This seems to have led the movement into one of its greatest failures: the star-crossed decision to employ the most dysfunctional organizational framework that human ingenuity has ever managed to create to achieve its goal: the United Nations treaty negotiation process. The process they chose requires unanimous consent; it is, in effect, a 194-member Security Council in which every member—Iran, Vanuatu, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example—had the power to halt the process with a veto.
Once this clumsy and unworkable mechanism (which synthesizes the weaknesses of both the General Assembly and the Security Council) was in place, the problems of the climate change movement went from difficult to impossible. On top of the problem of getting key countries to agree to serious limits on greenhouse gas emissions, they now had to negotiate their agenda through a feeding frenzy of rent-seeking bureaucrats and elites from the world’s most corrupt and incompetent governments. The question of verification alone is virtually impossible to address; any serious proposal to verify adherence to a climate change treaty would require a colonoscopic level of intrusive inspection and verification measures that countries like China are highly unlikely to accept.
Beyond these impediments, of course, are the obstacles that any attempt to make major changes in the way modern industrial civilization meets its energy needs. Such a program will inevitably create very large economic winners and losers, shift competitive advantages from some firms and sectors and countries to others, and produce unintended consequences and side-effects, some of which will almost certainly be both politically and economically undesirable and costly in the extreme.
As the political difficulties mounted, the movement made a second, equally disastrous error: It failed to understand that once the climate change movement entered the world of politics, the rules of engagement changed. Obscure scientific debates take place out of the public eye; when the stakes are very large (and the stakes in this debate are incalculably immense), that is no longer the case.
Climate scientists and their allies were surprised and horrified that the economic interests which oppose their agenda hired scientists and funded institutions to challenge their findings and publicize their results. That they were horrified is easy to understand; that they were surprised is inexcusably stupid and naive. (Again, it is the political leaders of the movement like Al Gore rather than less worldly scientists who are to blame for this—and for the ill-conceived global treaty approach in the first place.) That the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) had a part-time chair of dubious competence, that it lacked a strong central secretariat able to implement systematic and rigorous quality control over its publication and review process, that it lacked an internal culture of fact checking and accountability so that its leaders defended the indefensible, have done incalculable damage to the movement’s prospects. These follies were not imposed by the malice of its enemies; they were freely chosen by its feckless and frequently clueless friends.
Making major changes in the way the world uses energy would be the largest, most complex, most expensive and most destabilizing set of changes ever carried out by any international authority. To attempt this vast change using a mechanism as dysfunctional as the United Nations treaty system was staggeringly ill-advised. To fail to plan for and engage effectively with a sophisticated, multi-sided and well-funded pushback campaign was plain dumb. The mismatch between the extraordinary and, indeed, unprecedented ambitions of the climate change movement and its equally extraordinary lack of political intelligence has now produced the inevitable fiasco. Unfortunately, the result will not only derail serious consideration of viable strategies on the international level to cope with greenhouse gasses; it could well undermine public faith in the scientific process itself.
The first of these repercussions is no great tragedy; the solution to the problems before us was always going to be found at the political level in which both democratic and market forces collide. If it is true that the economics of a major shift away from carbon-heavy energy uses is transformative on the upside, then that shift will happen, and possibly happen more quickly than many imagine. The second, however, bears wide-ranging danger. Climate scientists, and really all scientific communities invested in public policy, need to search their ways and put things right as quickly and thoroughly as possible. The stakes are vast, even vaster, perhaps, than those of climate change.