The Bigger Picture
Published on August 13th in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
Even though I still plan to attend this year’s UN Global Climate Change Conference from 7-18 December in Copenhagen, I do not realistically expect a truly effective treaty or even a relatively toothless agreement to cut global carbon emissions to emerge from these negotiations. While the current global recession is being blamed by many politicians for a lack of progress on this global environmental issue, I believe the situation would be basically the same even if the global economy was booming.
Why do I feel this way? Well there are several loosely related factors that have led me to draw this somewhat pessimistic conclusion. It would be easy to blame various different politicians and political leaders but I think doing so is just an easy cop out for most of us. While many of them do bear some measure of responsibility for the current impasse on reducing carbon emissions, I think the lack of leadership many of them have demonstrated thus far is really a reflection of their constituents. Our politicians’ lack of political will to deal with the problem is due to the lack of urgency felt by citizens.
The reality of politics around the globe is that truly gifted political leaders like Barack Obama, with the ability to inspire people and marshal popular support from the general public for economically painful solutions to their countries problems, only come along once in a generation. The rest of the time our democratic political leaders tend to be people who attain their positions of power by using divide and conquer schemes to outwit their opponents and or manipulate public opinion. They aren’t inspiring natural leaders.
Authoritarian rulers also get to the top of their nations’ political heaps using the same methods that their democratic counter-parts use except they only have to contend with their countries’ business and social élites. They have an easier time of it than democratic leaders do, in terms of pushing unpopular policies on the general public, because they don’t have to worry about winning popular elections in the future.
But outside of a few extremely repressive regimes, even the most gifted and or authoritarian political leaders still have to be able to deal effectively with popular opposition to their policies if they want to maintain their grip on the reins of power.
President Obama is a gifted political leader who won election with a substantial majority of the popular and electoral vote. But he still has to grapple with winning the legislative support of Democratic members of Congress for his policy prescriptions, many of whom won election by only the barest of margins. Those legislators are worried about their prospects for winning re-election if their constituents or the business and social elites who fund their re-election campaigns decide they don’t like those policies.
As a result, the Climate Change bill that barely squeaked through the US Congress at the end of June was at best a very weak prescription for dealing with an ailment that is rapidly worsening. The good news is that the US Congress finally agreed to cut America’s carbon emissions, but the bad news is America will only cut them by 17% come the year 2020. Instead of a cap-and-trade system where credits for carbon emissions are sold to the highest bidders in order to provide money to offset increasing energy bills, the US will give 85% of them away to America’s biggest polluters for free.
While I agree with environmental NGOs that this bill fits the description of being “too little, too late”, I still can’t understand why Greenpeace actually came out against it. It has only taken the US Congress twenty years to get to the point where it was finally willing to play ball and cut America’s carbon emissions, so Greenpeace’s response, that no bill that cuts carbon emissions is preferable to a weak one, strikes me as disingenuous.
I am all for much stronger carbon reduction measures but please, let’s be a bit more realistic. A flawed climate change bill can still be tightened and strengthened in future years while some progress is made in the meantime; but no climate change legislation means no progress whatsoever until the political will exists for stronger measures. It is precisely this kind of thinking, on the part of some environmentalists, that leads many of their opponents to conclude that there is no point in negotiating with them.
Looking ahead to the UN Climate Change conference this December there are seven major entities that will be involved in negotiating a carbon emissions treaty to replace the ineffective Kyoto Protocol. The EU has the most political will to negotiate meaningful cuts in global carbon emissions, largely because a more educated citizenry that elects its leaders is more concerned about the consequences of climate change. Weak though it may be, there is at least some political will to address the problem of climate change due to global warming in America.
But what about the political will of China’s authoritarian regime? Or India’s democratically elected political leaders? Or the political will of Putin and Russia’s quasi-democratic political regime? These three countries are the largest sources of industrial carbon emissions outside of America and the EU and their combined emissions exceed those of the EU and America. Then we have the democratic governments of Brazil and Indonesia which have been unable to halt the illegal logging and clearing of their tropical rainforests even though they have designated them as “protected” national forests.
These seven entities account for approximately 70% of global carbon emissions, but the wealthier EU and America emit much more carbon per person than the denizens of the other five nations. The core of these countries collective position towards the EU and America is; that we need to “pay” them to reduce their emissions. Unfortunately for our global climate, I don’t see much evidence that the citizens of the EU or America are sufficiently alarmed about the consequences to be willing to pay to avoid them.