Climate-change politics

Climate-change politics

Paul Freedenberg

The Copenhagen global warming summit would seem like just another meaningless United Nationssponsored international forum if its consequences were not so deadly serious to the American economy. As a historical note, the last time such an event occurred – in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 – the U.S. Senate reacted by passing a resolution that renounced any Clinton Administration commitments made in Kyoto by an overwhelming bipartisan margin of 97 to 0. Even in that boom year, because it was believed that the health of the U.S. economy was threatened, the Senate was in no mood for unilateral concessions on energy usage. The consensus in the Senate was that the Kyoto Agreement would almost certainly lead to U.S. job losses. Moreover, it was feared that Kyoto would commit the U.S. government to policies that would cost trillions of dollars over the coming decades.

The Copenhagen global warming summit would entail similar commitments. Although no one knows how we could accomplish it, the U.S. government proposed to bring carbon emissions down to 83 percent below its 2005 levels by the year 2050. This is an impossible goal with current technology. To illustrate its futility: population projections for that year indicate that the U.S. will have 420 million people living here. That means that to reach that goal our carbon footprint would have to be equal to what we were emitting in 1875. Do we really want to commit ourselves to a goal that is either so idealistic or so insincere?

By contrast, the Chinese and Indian governments are unwilling to commit themselves to concrete numerical goals. The Chinese promise only to reduce their “carbon intensity” over the coming years. That translates into a commitment only to reduce China’s carbon emissions per unit of production.

Under any conceivable scenario of technological development, we should expect the Chinese to become more efficient in their use of carbon. They are currently three times less efficient than us in the production of steel. Increasing energy efficiency is something that the Chinese would want to do even if there were no climate summit and no outside pressure to become more efficient. It is not a concession.

Although we have heard positive comments about the Chinese and Indian carbon promises out of some in the environmental community and even some Senators, certainly the U.S. government is not so foolish as to accept those pledges as sufficient commitments. The Chinese and the Indians offer the excuse that they are developing economies and should be given more leeway. What the U.S. government – indeed the world – needs to hear from China and India are specific pledges to meet new carbon emission goals, goals that would require them to install expensive new carboncontrol technologies, or a switch to new less carbon-emitting fuels to reduce carbon output – the same difficult trade-offs that the developed industrialized countries are promising to make.

Otherwise, the Chinese and Indian promises are empty, and we are likely to be worse off than if there were no Copenhagen commitments at all, because carbon intensive industries will simply move to China and India.

Given the fact that the climate change legislation is not likely to pass the Senate during 2010 in its current form, and that the Obama administration is going to be under pressure from the European Union and the environmental wing of the President’s own party to do something about climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, it is likely that we will be seeing tough new carbon-restricting regulations coming from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the coming years.\

Just as the Copenhagen conference began, the EPA issued an “endangerment finding” under the authority of the Clean Air Act. That finding was grounded in the agency’s own climate change analysis. It allows the EPA to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions as harmful pollutants and enables the Obama administration to bypass the need for legislation before imposing controls. Under its legislative charter, the EPA is not limited by the economic impact of its regulations. Thus, we seem to be about to embark on a path to reach the Copenhagen climate goals, no matter whether the Indians and Chinese make similar commitments and despite what the U.S. Congress decides that it wants to do or not to do.

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