Politics & Policy

Hot Air on Climate Change in Lima

Air pollution in Beijing, January 2013. (Wang Zhao/Getty)
China’s promises sound impressive — until you look at the fine print.

Every December since 1995, the United Nations has held a meeting of the countries that signed onto its 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change. This year, the 20th “Conference of the Parties” (“COP-20”) is another iteration, with officials (and anyone who wants to influence them) spewing countless tons of carbon dioxide into the air to meet, posture, disagree, agree, and declare a breakthrough on global warming. This movie has played more times than A Christmas Story airs during the holidays. Ho, ho, ho!

Sometime during this year’s conference, various governments will breathlessly pronounce that 2014’s global temperatures will set an all-time record. Make that some temperatures, as not all the global records agree, and it’s also unclear what the previous record-warm year was. Some histories give it as 1998, while others say 2010. And make that “all-time” going back to the late 19th century. Before then, there was still a climate, and sometimes it was warmer.

So what’s with the cricket sounds emanating from Lima?

Climate hype is definitely on the down-low in Lima because the meeting is specifically designed to be a preparatory step for the great Paris climatefest of 2015, where leaders hope to (finally) ink a “legally binding” agreement to replace the failed and expired Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

That treaty never bound the U.S., because it was never ratified by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. The Constitution is clear that this needs to be done for a treaty to have the force of law. It’s therefore rather odd that the Obama administration floated a trial balloon last summer suggesting that the Paris agreement will not have to be ratified. Damn the Constitution! Full speed ahead!

As has been shown repeatedly, the president can, via the Environmental Protection Agency, command any reduction in carbon dioxide emissions that Tom Steyer desires, thanks to a 2007 5–4 Supreme Court decision, Massachusetts v. EPA.

Unfortunately, this president will veto any attempt that Congress may pass to restrict necessary funds to the EPA’s enforcement apparatus. But some other president, without the Senate’s ratification, may do much less, especially with a Congress of the same stripe.

So why does Lima matter? It matters because of the charade of global agreement that will be foisted upon the world and repeated by the UN’s green allies everywhere and anywhere.

That charade emanates from China’s putative “commitment” to cap its carbon dioxide emissions some 16 years from now. In fact, they “agreed” to no such thing. The communiqué that came out of Peking’s meeting with President Obama in October says that China “intends” to cap its emissions “around” 2030.

It’s funny that so few people have noted China’s purposeful ambiguity, but that’s just history repeating itself. In November 2009, in the hype-up to the last great attempt to replace Kyoto, we also read that “China has finally agreed on a timetable to reduce emissions.” They hadn’t. Instead, they said their goal was to lower the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of economic output (the so-called “intensity” of carbon dioxide production).

While both of China’s announcements, in 2009 and 2014, generated much sound and fury, they signified little, if anything. In the years before the 2009 Copenhagen meeting, which itself was a spectacular failure, China was wildly inefficient with energy, so it was inevitable that its “intensity” would soon decline. It is also obvious that China’s developmental trajectory will result in a substantial slowdown or stabilization of emissions somewhere “around” 2030.

The only difference between Copenhagen and Lima is timing. The anticipated result is the same: that the world will come together and sign a breakthrough climate agreement, first in 2009, and now next year in Paris. And, as was the case in Copenhagen and will be the case in Lima, a spectacular victory will be announced in France in 2015 that will turn out to be meaningless because of Chinese (in)action.

— Patrick J. Michaels is director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute and a senior fellow in research and economic development at George Mason University.

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