As the European Union prepares to overshoot its Kyoto greenhouse gas (GHG) emission targets by a substantial margin (joined by Japan, Canada, and other countries that promised to reduce their emissions under Kyoto), Europe is gearing up for international negotiations on post-Kyoto GHG reduction commitments.
Since significant GHG reductions are likely to cause serious hardship, the EU doesn’t want to kick its economy too hard unless other countries, particularly the United States, agree to hobble themselves as well. Yesterday’s New York Times headline “Europeans Agree to Cut Emissions Sharply if U.S. and Others Follow Suit” tells the story: “European officials want other parts of the world, including the United States, to adopt European-style restrictions on emissions to fight climate change, thus helping European businesses compete globally at a time when the European Union is toughening regulation in sectors like air travel, car manufacturing and construction.”
But the risks of a substantial emissions-reduction commitment are probably even greater for the US than the EU. America’s population is growing faster than Europe’s, so any commitment to reduce total future emissions will mean a larger percentage reduction in per-capita emissions for Americans than for Europeans. In addition, differences between the legal systems in Europe and the US probably make it easier for European countries to back out of or at least ignore a GHG-reduction treaty if it turns out to cause serious economic harm or a political backlash. In the US, however, once Congress ratifies an international GHG treaty, American jurisprudence will allow any party that can gain legal “standing” to sue to require that the US strictly meet its treaty commitment.
Public debate over climate change has tended to focus on the risks of not doing anything to address it. But trying to do something about climate change also entails risks. Many environmentalists and politicians would like to suppress energy use, with potentially grave consequences for the world’s prosperity. Equally worrisome is the possibility that a world fossil-fuel-suppression regime would create the mother of all cartels, with legions of corporations, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and politicians vying for a share of the spoils at the expense of the world’s consumers.
If maximizing future human welfare and prosperity is the goal of climate change policy, we need to be talking about the risks of doing something in addition to the risks of doing nothing.