There’s an international conference on global warming — the 14th Convention of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol — under way in frozen Poznan, Poland. You’ll be excused for not having heard about it, because not much is happening, despite Al Gore’s triumphal entrance into the city, which may as well have occurred in a chariot. (“Many see him as a saviour,” reports Der Spiegel.) In Poznan, what is not happening is more significant than what is.
The Poznan meeting was supposed to prepare the way for a “Son of Kyoto” pact to be signed, sealed, and delivered at Copenhagen in December next year. Now even the chief of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, Yvo de Boer, has admitted that “under the circumstances, nobody expects a fully elaborated long-term response” in Copenhagen. The circumstances he refers to are the economic crises at present worrying the world.
In Europe, the financial turmoil has broken the stride of the EU’s lockstep approach to climate issues. Those with greater economic vulnerability — Italy, Poland, and much of Eastern Europe — refuse to accept a new climate deal, crafted by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, on the grounds that it will further damage their already fragile economies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel seeks exemptions for her country’s heavy industries. Italian environment minister Stefania Presciagiacomo pooh-poohs the idea that “green jobs” will transform advanced economies, scoffing, “Some people claim environmental measures are a way to re-launch industry. But let’s be realistic: Resources are limited, and they will be even more so because of the economic crisis.”
Meanwhile, developing countries remain adamant that they will not accept any new limits on their emissions in Kyoto II. This is a fact of no little salience, given that China is today the world’s No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases, followed by the United States, Indonesia, and India. (It’s worth keeping in mind what the U.S. gives the world along with those emissions: In the more relevant comparison, the ratio of economic production to greenhouse emissions, the United States is the best performer among this group by a very wide margin, producing $2,000 in economic value per ton of greenhouse emissions to China’s $450, India’s $497, and Indonesia’s $679. A ton of emissions from the United States brings the world 4.5 times as much economic good as a ton of emissions from China.) The developing nations are right to resist new limits because the affordable energy that fossil fuels supply is an important engine for lifting their people out of poverty. But without meaningful limits on developing-world emissions, greenhouse gas concentrations will continue to rise. That makes things awkward for Obama.
For eight years, the United States has been the object of criticism, much of it harsh and unfair, for its unwillingness to be afflicted with sweeping emissions limits and the punitive economic consequences that will go along with them. And now, the very same international parties that censured the United States for looking to its own interests have themselves become the agents of delay. This presents a quandary for the president-elect, who sat next to Gore and declared that “the time for delay is over,” and who famously declared that his ascension would constitute “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” Obama promised to submit to the global consensus on climate change, but that consensus no longer exists as an operational political fact.
This may yet work out well for Obama and his new environment team. One of the lessons of Kyoto was that imposing an international global-warming agreement upon independence-minded America was bound to fail. Obama now has opportunity to devise a domestic policy — likely some variant of a “cap and trade” regime — that he can take to the meeting after Copenhagen, in 2010, in hopes of inducing the other parties to follow his lead.
But if he is unable to secure the passage of new climate legislation — or if he is foolish enough to let the EPA proceed with its quixotic dream of circumventing Congress to regulate emissions itself by reinterpreting the Clean Air Act — Obama may find that even a 2010 deadline will come too quickly. The one thing we can be sure of is that the Poznan meeting will result in plans to meet again and talk some more, and that Al Gore and his acolytes will hail this as a historic achievement.