Politics & Policy

“A Solemn and Prolonged Farce”

Winston Churchill’s famous description of disarmament negotiations — “a solemn and prolonged farce” — now applies equally well to the U.N.’s endless climate-change talks. The not-so-hidden agenda of the U.N. climate conference in Bali was clear for months — beat the United States into submission — and the long run-up to Bali was carefully choreographed, with no fewer than four major reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). All of them said the same thing: Doom awaits unless we take drastic action now. The climate campaigners’ goal is a 25 to 40 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020. Having failed to come anywhere near the more modest Kyoto targets, they apparently feel that now is the time for an even less realistic goal.

It was always in the cards that the conference would be deadlocked until the eleventh hour, at which time the U.S. would capitulate and accept some kind of pro-forma agreement, allowing climate campaigners to proclaim that salvation was at hand. Bali followed this script faithfully, with the U.S. coming in for boos, catcalls, and threats — and then cheers and congratulations when it gave in to the “consensus” at the end.

The actual result is inconclusive and kicks the can down the road, where much mischief will need to be fought off again. While the U.S. agreed to participate in framing a successor treaty to Kyoto that will include “measurable, verifiable steps” toward reducing GHG emissions, the desired 25–40 percent reduction was conspicuously left out, to the anger of many greens. “This deal is very disappointing,” the head of Friends of the Earth told the London Times. “This conference has failed to give us a clear destination.” Opposition to the numerical target apparently came from Russia as well as key developing nations such as China and India. The Washington Post called the Bali agreement a “road map,” and it is likely to prove no more successful than that other, more famous “road map” for Middle East peace.

While it might have been better for the U.S. simply to walk out of Bali, the shifting political landscape arguably made it prudent to hang in. The next president is likely (certain if he is a Democrat) to participate in any future climate agreement, and a “stubborn” U.S. position today would give a Democratic president a free shot at ingratiating himself with Europe by ostentatiously repudiating the Bush administration. Meanwhile, the grim economic realities of greenhouse-gas emission reductions continue to loom in the background. If Congress enacts a modest emission-reductions plan in 2008 or 2009 (either an emission-trading scheme or a carbon tax), it is unlikely the U.S. will want to commit to a more ambitious U.N. emissions target subsequently, for the same reason the Senate voted 95–0 in 1997 to reject Kyoto.

So the high-stakes climate poker game will go on to the next hand, where the U.S. still has some decent cards to play. If hypocrisy were a clean energy source, the U.N. could solve the problem of climate change instantly. While the climate warriors heap scorn on the U.S. for its supposed “lack of leadership,” no one is taking note of the fact that the U.S. is probably the only industrialized nation whose greenhouse-gas emissions went down in 2006. (Figures for Europe are not available yet.) The Department of Energy reports that U.S. emissions declined 1.5 percent. This is significant because it has never before happened in a non-recessionary year. That it happened now is a sign of the increasing energy efficiency and superior innovation of the U.S. economy. In fact, the U.S. has had the best GHG-emissions record in the industrialized world for most of the last decade.

On the science front, get ready for the rash of year-end headlines about 2007’s being yet again among the hottest years on record. What these headlines will conceal is that 2007 was roughly the same temperature as 2006, 2005, 2004, and so forth, back to 2000. After rising steadily and noticeably between 1980 and 1998, global temperatures have flattened out for the last decade, even though the climate models say they should be continuing to increase. Curious. The headlines could just as accurately read, “Scientists Confirm Global Warming Standstill.” A few more years of flat temperatures will cause a crisis among the climate campaigners and confound the scientists. This might, however, be one crisis that the greens can’t turn into a panic.

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