Politics & Policy

We’ll Always Have Paris

COP26 President Alok Sharma gestures as he receives applause during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain November 13, 2021. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Well, that was a carbon-neutral plant-based nothingburger.

The 26th annual U.N. climate-change conference — that’s COP26, a “conference of the parties” in U.N.-speak — made for good theater. It put a lot of hours on a lot of private jets — Barack Obama, you have been cleared for takeoff — but it didn’t offer much in the way of meaningful new climate policy.

And that may be the best outcome that we could hope for.

If the real stakes were low, the drama was high. While the heads of government and climate activists traded pieties, Xi Jinping made a power move, declining to attend the conference at all — let Joe Biden do the hard work of pretending to give a damn about the Maldives. Beijing then swooped in at the last minute to steal the show — and the headlines — with a surprise bilateral accord with the United States.

That U.S.-China accord is typical of U.N. climate deal-making: It is a plan to have a plan — several of them, in fact. In this case, China is sticking to its existing plan for the near term — meaning that it will continue to increase rather than reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions through at least 2030 while promising to make more drastic cuts to emissions sometime in the coming decades. It has signed on to a vague commitment to “accelerated actions in the critical decade of the 2020s” and to setting up a new U.S.-China climate-policy working group.

In terms of hard commitments to meaningful action, there’s not much there. China, currently responsible for more than a quarter of all greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide, rejected meaningful curbs on its methane output, once again promising to come up with a plan . . . eventually. But, fear not: The statement declares that the two countries “recall their firm commitment to work together.” They rededicated themselves to “ambitious” action — “ambition” being the favorite word among the U.N. climate-activist crowd.

Translation: “We’ll always have Paris. And Doha, and Lima, and Katowice, and next year in Sharm el-Sheikh.”

John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, provided welcome comic relief, skulking around the conference with his retinue and getting upstaged and ignored at every turn, not only by the president but by the former president and even by the callow young representative from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was greeted like a Beatle while Kerry generated more of a Perry Como–type buzz.

India played the role of spoiler, pulling a last-second switcheroo on the language relating to coal: The commitment to “phase out” coal has been replaced by one to “phase down” coal, whatever that means. India has the world’s second-largest coal reserves (behind the United States), but China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of goal and holds the third-largest reserves. India’s move to torpedo the coal language enjoyed the quiet support of both Beijing and Washington — another example of the Biden administration talking out of both sides of its mouth on climate and energy policy.

An Indian negotiator insisted that India is “entitled” to its emissions as a matter of social justice: The rich world enjoyed cheap energy in much of the 20th century, and so (the argument goes) the developing world is owed the same benefit in the 21st. And therein lies one of the troubles with these negotiations.

We are told (endlessly) that this is a question of science, and that our policy goals can in fact be adduced from the scientific evidence. But as a matter of science, it does not matter to the climate one bit whether a ton of coal is burned in Uttar Pradesh or in Illinois — and so matters of science become matters of social justice when the facts and figures are inconvenient. The United Nations presents itself as a forum for internationalism, but it is in reality a theater of competing nationalisms, from Joe Biden’s tired, greenwashed crony capitalism to Narendra Modi’s slightly fresher version of the same thing.

This is a political problem for the climate activists because it is the developing world, not the rich countries, that will be responsible for most of the greenhouse-gas emissions in coming years. Going into Glasgow, the activists insisted that this convention represented the human race’s last chance to do something to prevent catastrophic climate chaos. But once the parties were assembled, they did not act as though they actually believe any such thing. Instead, what unfolded was the usual festival of rent-seeking, advantage-hunting, and money-grubbing at a global scale that marks almost everything the United Nations does or touches.

The United Nations has a credibility problem. Its most famous program for the control of fossil fuels was a multi-billion-dollar bribery scheme involving Iraqi oil and the Saddam Hussein regime back in the 1990s. While our progressive friends may hysterically denounce climate “deniers,” the most relevant skepticism when it comes to climate change is and always has been policy skepticism. It is perhaps time for climate activists — including British and European center-right leaders and the small handful of our own Republicans with a real interest in the issue — to consider the possibility that the United Nations simply is not the most effective venue for pursuing any relevant reforms.

What should be entirely clear is that American climate policy needs to be made in Washington, not in Glasgow or Paris or elsewhere. It is fine to go and give a speech or listen to one, but the U.N. process offers very little hope of good climate policy — and it offers superabundant opportunities for mischief. It is time for this conversation to enter a new and more realistic phase, one that is focused on discrete and achievable reforms — and one that is a little less dependent on the moral dependability and good character of the Chinese Communist Party. In practical terms, that could include any number of approaches, from encouraging the development of nuclear power here and abroad (India has nuclear weapons but produces very little nuclear power) to helping poor countries develop more modern agricultural practices.

And, of course, we could and should help the rest of the world do what the United States did over the past decade or so: converting relatively dirty coal-fired power plants to relatively clean natural-gas generation. But that would mean building more natural-gas infrastructure, including export depots on the west coast — something the environmental lobby has worked tirelessly to block, just as it has worked tirelessly to block nuclear power. Strangely, it is the environmentalists who are the main obstacle to implementing cleaner energy in much of the world.

It is not clear that the Biden administration is up to threading this particular needle. On the one hand, imposing a radical green agenda on the United States while China and India go on about their merry business would mean high costs for Americans with no real benefits; on the other hand, forgoing any meaningful action until there is a unified global program would deprive us of potential cumulative benefits, including the benefits unrelated to climate that would come from additional nuclear power and gas infrastructure, better worldwide agricultural practices, and the like. Striking an intelligence balance there would require something more than the superficial and symbolic politics in which the Biden administration specializes.

And so we come to the question of practical steps. We already know some of the things we would have to do to adapt to expected climate changes, because we already adapt to climate differences: There is a reason that buildings in Miami are designed and put together differently from those in Phoenix. Nobody wants to see more extreme weather, droughts, or flooding, but these are problems that can be mitigated and dealt with. It is a far more reasonable expectation that we will be able to adapt intelligently to climate change than that the Glasgow conventioneers will develop and implement an effective and economical program for controlling worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases — science has its say in this matter, but so do history and experience.

And if the climate models turn out to be accurate, global warming will impose real costs on the world — costs that are best met with the abundant resources and innovation that come from economic growth and investment in the here and now.

One nuclear power plant is worth a hundred years’ talk about climate “ambition.”

In Glasgow, the angry, placard-waving activists on the street complained bitterly that what was happening at COP26 under U.N. auspices was fundamentally unserious. In this much, at least, we are inclined to agree with them.

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