President Obama could have given the global environmentalist movement the crippling deal it wants — a binding commitment to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and a financial commitment to help developing countries do the same. And to be sure, he put these things on the table. But he conditioned them upon receiving binding and verifiable promises to cut emissions from the developing world, which were not forthcoming. Given the circumstances, he had little choice but to do the responsible thing and punt.
Let’s not give him too much credit here. In the absence of those commitments, there wasn’t much he could credibly offer. In 1997, the Senate passed a resolution 95-0 stating that it would not ratify any treaty that forced the U.S. to cut emissions while allowing rapidly growing poor countries, such as China and India, limitless freedom to increase theirs. Times have changed, but the Senate is still reluctant to hamstring the American economy for no good reason, as evidenced by the Democrats’ inability to move a cap-and-trade bill this year.
One of the main arguments in favor of cap-and-trade is that it would purportedly show the developing world that the U.S. is serious about cutting emissions, thus inducing them to follow our lead. But the developing world’s reluctance to follow us down such a path has little to do with our supposed hypocrisy and everything to do with the fact that large swaths of that world remain desperately poor. Around 8 million people in China still lack electricity. In India, that number is a staggering 404 million. The affordable energy that fossil fuels supply is an important engine for lifting people out of poverty. Alternatives simply can’t provide the required amount of energy, much less provide it at the same cost.
Groups like Greenpeace say they have an answer, which is that we should pay the bill. Obama is open to that idea — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered to help raise $100 billion a year to defray the cost of “climate-change mitigation” in the developing world — but again, he seemed to realize that this kind of financial commitment would have been impossible to sell to Congress without a robust mechanism in place for making sure that foreign leaders were using the money to meet emissions targets and not stashing it away in Swiss bank accounts.
The leaders of these countries took offense to the very suggestion that they might cook the books to evade their commitments and stormed out of various meetings at the conference several times. In the end, Obama could not give what he did not have, and that is the willingness of Congress to send a huge amount of money abroad, and inflict a huge amount of economic pain at home, in exchange for empty promises from other countries to reduce their emissions. Carl Pope of the Sierra Club said with disappointment, “President Obama and the rest of the world paid a steep price here in Copenhagen because of obstructionism in the United States Senate.” Let us hope that obstructionism continues.