Politics & Policy

The U.N.’s Climate-Summit Charade

Turning up the political heat. (Vladishern, Daniele Taurino/Dreamstime)
Western nations keep the talks going, to justify costly de-carbonization programs at home.

At a perilous juncture in world affairs and with the international system visibly breaking down — the first forcible annexation of European territory since Hitler’s war; a bunch of fanatics and psychopaths, perpetrators of a double genocide, seizing control of a vast swath of the Levant, and American leadership exhausted — the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, is convening a summit of world leaders to discuss, of all things, global warming. True, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton calls it the most consequential and urgent set of challenges facing the world, but the leaders of Canada, Germany, China, and India appear not to agree and are giving next week’s meeting in New York a pass.

The idea for the summit is Mr. Ban’s, who has made global warming the overriding mission of the United Nations since becoming secretary general in 2007. No previous secretary general has evinced so little interest in the great matters of peace and war and has so little to show for his efforts. Were it not for the prestige of his job, Mr. Ban would cut a hapless figure, over the years making a string of histrionic warnings and absurdly optimistic forecasts of the imminence of a global warming treaty.

Those might have been understandable at the outset of his term, before hopes for a treaty were repeatedly dashed. Mr. Ban was in Bali at the end of his first year hailing the annual climate talks as the chance to usher in a “a new age of green economics.” After the collapse of attempts to agree on a new treaty two years later, he told delegates at Copenhagen, “You sealed a deal,” which they hadn’t, and promised to have a legally binding treaty in 2010, which there wasn’t.

Having lost the race to have a new treaty in place before the end of the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period, Mr. Ban declared at the start of the 2012 Durban conference, “It would be difficult to overstate the gravity of this moment.” So he gave it his best shot: “Without exaggeration, we can say: the future of our planet is at stake.” In fact, Durban was the high water mark of hopes for a son-of-Kyoto. Agreement in Durban on a road map to an outcome “with legal force” was later eviscerated by developing nations at subsequent conferences.

There’s no mystery as to why a global treaty embracing the world’s biggest emitters is out of reach. Mr. Ban only has to look at the growth of carbon dioxide emissions from the developing nations and to his native South Korea for the answer. Last year, developing nations accounted for 59 percent of the world’s fossil-fuel emissions, compared with only 33 percent in 1990, the base year of the Kyoto Protocol. Of these, only the billion-plus-population nations of India and China had larger absolute increases than South Korea, which had a bigger increase than the whole of Africa. Indeed, the increase in South Korea’s fossil-fuel emissions between 1990 and 2013 (513.1 million tons of CO2) almost exactly equals the 513.4 million tons emitted by the U.K. in 2013.

Just as climate scientists are reluctant to specify a date by when global temperatures will spike upward to where their supercomputers say they should be, so climate negotiators are desperate to avoid setting a drop-dead date by which time a new climate treaty must be agreed on or admit the effort is not going to succeed. The West’s failure at Copenhagen marks a milestone in the shift in power from the West to the East. Since then, the West’s decline has continued. It will be in an even weaker position to get a binding treaty in Paris next year than it was in Copenhagen, an eventuality the Obama administration appears already to have conceded.

But it would be a mistake to think that agreeing on an effective treaty is still the prime motivation of Western governments. The game now is to keep the process going indefinitely. They have committed their countries to immensely costly de-carbonization policies. Without the prospect of coordinated global action, any objective justification for them vanishes. The Obama administration uses a global valuation of social cost of carbon (SCC) to justify its de-carbonization policies, including the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. As the interagency group that calculated the SCC acknowledged in 2010, “even if the United States were to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to zero, that step would be far from enough to avoid substantial climate change.”

For this reason, some climate economists, including Yale’s Bill Nordhaus, advocate carbon tariffs on imports from countries that do not put a price on carbon. This is playing with fire. Tariffs not only violate economists’ preference for free trade. They would remove a cornerstone of the post-war international system created by the U.S. and conceived by Franklin Roosevelt and his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, in reaction to the wave of protectionism in the 1930s. The First World War is a reminder that trade does not guarantee peace. Access to the international trading system gives nations an incentive to resolve their differences peaceably, and its fragmentation into rival trading blocs would make the world more dangerous.

From the phase of trying and failing, the climate-change talks have evolved to creating a phony impression of a horizon lit with the prospect of global agreement to justify costly de-carbonization programs at home. Developing nations are happy to go along with this as long as it doesn’t hurt their economies. In other words, the talks have become an exercise in deception.

— Rupert Darwall is the author of The Age of Global Warming: A History (Quartet, 2013).


The Latest