Once again the cumbersome and awkward UN treaty machinery is grinding away, and the world’s jet-setting bureaucrats and climate change crusaders are consuming whole forests to print position papers and reports that no one will ever read, booking flights on carbon-spewing jets, and otherwise preparing for a major global summit. This time, they will be meeting in Paris, showing yet again that no sacrifice is too great for those dedicated to ending the scourge of climate change. Copenhagen, Paris, Rio, Cancun: these are people who are willing to take their expense accounts to the ends of the earth to save humanity from the consequences of the incontinent consumption and travel of the little people.
Past carbon summits have been exercises in futility as developing countries blame rich ones for all the carbon they’ve dumped in the past, and as the developed countries lecture the developing ones on the evils of industrialization, the early signs are that the Paris gabfest will be more of the same. French President Francois Hollande criticized the pace at which countries released their national emissions plans while the UN’s own climate chief Christiana Figueres admitted that Paris talks wouldn’t get us on the “2C pathway” (if we get beyond that degree of warming, many scientists say, we’re, well, in trouble). She also took pains to assure the developing world that whatever negotiators cook up in France this December won’t be a “punitive-type” deal, but rather would be about “enabling and facilitating.”
To be fair, the global carbon bureaucracy has a tough assignment. Global greens want tight restrictions on carbon emissions embodied in a legally binding treaty. The realities of the UN treaty process, not to mention domestic politics in countries around the world, make this pretty much impossible. The United States Senate, which voted down the last global treaty (the poorly designed and ineffective Kyoto Protocol) 95-0, needs a two thirds majority to ratify a treaty. This isn’t going to happen no matter what Greenpeace wants, and everybody knows it. Moreover, countries like China and India, hellbent on attacking poverty and building up their stature as great powers, will never accept limits on their growth, or acknowledge the right of UN climate bureaucrats to control their economic policy making and development strategies. To make things even more difficult, the UN process is based on unanimous consent; any little country can bring the whole bureaucratic machine to a juddering halt.
There’s another complicating factor: the industrial green lobby. Windmills, solar power producers and other “alternative” power sources are still, unfortunately, much more expensive and much less efficient than conventional fossil fuel based sources. But if companies can stir up a storm of green political enthusiasm, they can get laws passed that subsidize alternative sources and in effect require utilities and consumers to purchase their products no matter how costly or inconvenient they are. It is like a government license to print money, and green ‘rentrepreneurs’ have deep pockets. Like the ethanol lobby in the U.S., the alternative power lobby is pressing politicians in many countries around the world to make them even richer.
And then there is that teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy problem of the $100 billion per year that rich country negotiators promised to poor countries in an effort to get the Third World to sign on. Ever since that promise was made, the rich countries have been trying to figure out clever tricks to make it go away, and the poor countries have been riveted on getting the cash. Again, the United States Senate is probably not going to ratify a treaty that calls for tens of billions of dollars (the US share would have to be somewhere between $20 and $35 billion to make the math work out) in compulsory foreign aid to the end of time. But equally certainly, poor countries aren’t going to let this bargaining chip be forgotten. This is a royal mess and it isn’t getting any better. As the Financial Times reports, citing a French government paper describing the state of climate talks:
The paper says another unresolved debate remains over the question of how much money rich countries should channel to developing nations to help them tackle climate change, beyond the $100bn a year that wealthy economies have already said they will muster by 2020.
“Many people are of the view that the finance question is the big, difficult outstanding one right now,” said Valli Moosa, South Africa’s former environment minister, who co-chaired the C2ES consultations with negotiators.
There is also disagreement over whether the accord should contain measures covering the loss and damage that poor countries may suffer because of climate change, which the French paper says is an issue of “very high political importance for several countries”.
“It also raises concerns for some others, especially when it is framed as a liability which would lead to compensation,” the paper adds.
Politicians and bureaucrats understand these realities, and so they are looking for fudges: verbal formulae that will look tough and effective enough to soothe greens, but be fuzzy and unenforceable enough that there is a chance that they might actually turn into a treaty someday. While a legally binding and effective climate treaty is something the international system as presently constituted cannot possibly deliver, a fudge is something else, and as Parisian restauranteurs oil their souffle pans for the influx of expense account climate bureaucrats, optimism is beginning to stir. As Bloomberg reports, the magic formula might be coming together:
With almost five months to go before a critical Paris meeting, nations are coalescing around a deal that would commit every country to restricting greenhouse gases but bind none to specific targets. While that may seem a tepid effort, given scientists’ warnings of catastrophic climate change, it’s still an improvement over the last big meeting, when talks in Copenhagen in 2009 ended without an expected global deal, and with finger-pointing among the U.S., China and other big polluters. […]
A “hybrid” structure, in which nations would be legally bound to make some climate pledge but free to decide the specific steps they must take, has helped bridge divides between developed and developing countries, [said former South African environment minister Valli Moosa]. While that leaves it to individual nations to follow through on their promises, it bows to political realities in places like the U.S., where legally binding cuts would face a tough sell in Congress.
It is, in its way, a perfect solution. It is a legally binding agreement to disagree about carbon. Each country is legally bound to do exactly what it wants. It is an elegant escape from the climate treaty dilemma; the diplomats can report success, and the world can turn away from a misbegotten negotiation that has already caused humiliation (ask your favorite EU representative how Copenhagen turned out) and can only yield impasse as long as it is pursued. To produce a failure but to call it success is one of the oldest political tricks in the book; this is probably now the best case scenario for the global treaty movement.
The wailing, the keening, the rending of garments and the gnashing of green teeth will be intense as this outcome draws near. We look forward to some extremely impassioned and elegant eloquence in the New Yorker on this topic. But a decent burial for the climate treaty movement would be a good thing from the standpoint of the actual climate. This treaty process was never anything more than a distraction; expecting the UN treaty system to produce a seriously effective climate treaty is like expecting a camel to give birth to a swan.
Getting the treaty mess out of the way is a good thing. There’s a chance it will even liberate greens to take a fresh look at a world that in many respects is headed their way. Lots of countries that don’t give a rat’s rear end about the Sierra Club want to reduce the cost of energy to their economies. As China gets richer it wants to cut down on air pollution—and both the military and the bean-counters want the country to become less dependent on imported fossil fuels. Overall, the tech revolution is shifting the world economy away from heavy industry toward the production and organization of information. That means a world that gets richer and greener at the same time.
Up until now, the green movement has been trapped in a top-down, statist paradigm. For some, it’s all about empowering governments to control capitalism. Maybe capitalism outproduced socialism, but, red greens argue, only by wrecking the planet. The proletariat may not need to destroy capitalism in order to better its living standards, but petty bourgeois greens must destroy it in order to save the planet. For this kind of thinker, national plans are better than market forces, and global plans are better than national ones. A binding UN treaty that would subject every economy on earth to a set of regulations and controls developed and administered by an international bureaucracy is, for some, the Holy Grail to be sought at all costs.
Yet in its origins, the green movement is something very different: it is a rebellion against central planning and bureaucratic control. The early greens in America fought against the Army Corps of Engineers with its desire to drain every wetland, dam every river, and enclose every stream in scientifically designed concrete banks. At times, the green movement is a rebellion against science by emotion driven dissenters: think of homeopaths, anti-vaccine freaks, organic food junkies, and the anti-GMO nuts, whose fears cannot be calmed by any number of peer reviewed articles.
The uneasy coalition of carbon science zealots, anti-capitalists, emotional crackpots and powerful industry lobbies has been able to galvanize a movement, but it has yet to develop a coherent and workable program. This is partly because the scientific basis for a viable decarbonization movement (efficient generation of power from non-fossil fuels) is still some ways off. It is partly because of divisions inside the green coalition that make alternatives like nuclear power anathema. It is partly because the rentrepreneurs have enough money that they are able to pervert the climate movement to serve their economic ends. It is partly because the statist model of the Marxian greens is too unpopular and has too many flaws. It is partly because greens have been too willing to embrace scare propaganda in the hopes of stampeding world opinion to embrace unworkable solutions, and so have undermined their credibility. And it is partly because the green movement remains intellectually underdeveloped: the relationship of the human race to its environment, and the place of energy in that relationship are complex topics, and strategies to change those relationships cannot be as crude and unrealistic as a single global climate treaty.
Fortunately, the human race—which is, after all, part of the natural world—seems to be moving towards the kind of planetary symbiosis that we need. A smarter green movement would find ways to accelerate the transformation towards a higher tech, lighter touch economy as a way of enhancing humanity’s freedom while reducing its footprint. An example of this kind of thinking can be found in the recent Ecomodernist Manifesto. A few green shoots are beginning to appear.
Climate change is an enormous, unwieldy, and in many ways poorly understood threat, but that doesn’t mean our approach to it ought to share those same characteristics. As it is, the bureaucratic wheels will continue to spin in preparation for the Paris summit; we only hope that more greens begin to think more critically about the futility of the movement’s current path.