Magazine | December 31, 2015, Issue

Climate Play-Acting

The conference in Paris accomplished nothing much

Goalposts move all the time, but rarely are they disassembled and carted away, leaving the teams to circle aimlessly while the crowd roars and the commentators prattle on as if nothing had changed.

That’s what happened at the just-concluded Paris climate talks, which managed to produce an agreement but also marked the collapse of a 25-year effort to catalyze collective global action on climate change. The collapse settles the long-running debate over whether strong “leadership” by the United States would induce developing countries to make sacrifices for the sake of reducing emissions; it didn’t. By the time leaders jetted from around the world to the opening ceremonies, such actions were not even on the table.

Countries such as India and China won applause for merely making emissions pledges, but those pledges amounted to promises to continue with business as usual. Taken in aggregate, the world’s Paris commitments are estimated to reduce warming in this century by 0.0 to 0.2°C. Indeed, as the politicians, activists, and reporters strode proudly through their Potemkin conference, the goal of actually mitigating climate change seemed far from their minds. The political accomplishment of a signed agreement, never mind its contents, had become the end in itself.

The outcome leaves President Obama’s climate policy in shambles. The underlying rationale for his domestic climate action, from blocking the Keystone XL pipeline to imposing the Clean Power Plan, has always been to display “leadership” and inspire other countries to follow with sacrifices of their own. As EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy explained when asked how the Clean Power Plan could affect global temperatures: “The value of this rule is not measured in that way, it is measured in showing strong domestic action which can actually trigger global action.”

But if international negotiations no longer demand or even attempt such global action (as opposed to global talks, or global accords agreeing to future global talks), what exactly are we doing? Securing a “legacy” for a president, perhaps. Unfortunately, that legacy will be — as in so many areas for Obama — a short-sighted political victory that accomplished little and left the American people with a massive bill.

Paris should be an inflection point in the climate debate. While news reports talk of a “historic breakthrough” and “a turning point for humanity,” the actual shift in terrain has dramatically weakened the case for the Left’s climate agenda. In parallel, conservatives are discovering that climate science offers them firm ground from which to argue, forcing those who advocate costly symbolic action to move toward ever shakier attempts to inspire fear.

A new set of questions should dominate the 2016 discussion: How bad a deal did President Obama get for the American people? How will U.S. “leadership” trigger international action that is no longer even under negotiation? And could someone please reassure Bernie Sanders that the planet will remain “habitable”?

The proposition is admittedly bizarre: The international summit to combat climate change did not have as its goal the mitigation of climate change. Instead, it aimed to burnish the legacies of participants and justify the enormous sums of political capital expended on the process. Consider three pieces of evidence that make sense only under this interpretation.

Exhibit A: By design, the negotiating process provided no mechanism for the world to act collectively on the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions.

After the spectacular collapse of the Copenhagen talks in 2009, negotiators could have continued in pursuit of a substantive agreement under which the nations of the world would hold hands and jump together toward lower emissions. This path had no guarantee of success — indeed, skeptics of international cooperation on the issue have long predicted failure. But at least the effort and the purported goal would have aligned.

Instead, negotiators abandoned all pretense of substantive negotiations. They adopted a “pledge and review” process, by which countries proposed their own “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs) for emissions cuts. Those proposals were made at each country’s discretion and required no particular format, metrics, or baseline for comparison. The contributions were not legally binding, and no consequences were established for noncompliance.

This approach plainly fails to motivate collective action. It purports, according to one preliminary negotiating document, to “enable an upward spiral of ambition.” But as economists more rationally observed in Nature: “History and the science of cooperation predict that quite the opposite will happen.”

What incentive does any country have to make economic sacrifices — indeed, why even continue with high-profile international conferences — if each country is free to choose its own course? Pursuing such a framework makes sense only if the existence of an agreement has become more important than the agreement’s contents.

Exhibit B: While the process should in theory have “named and shamed” countries that made inadequate commitments, even the weakest pledges received full credit.

Any defense of the INDC process must hinge on its capacity to produce action through “peer pressure.” The plausibility of that theory is questionable, given that the actors are not 13-year-old girls but nations struggling to lift their populations out of poverty. Still, it’s a theory.

Unfortunately, instead of exerting pressure by confronting countries that made nonsensical pledges, conferees allowed the submission of literally anything to earn a passing grade. President Obama proudly declared that “180 countries . . . show[ed] up in Paris with serious climate targets in hand.” How serious were they?

China pledged that its carbon dioxide emissions would peak “around 2030,” which is exactly when a prior study by the U.S. government’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggested they would peak anyway. It also offered to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP (“carbon intensity”), but analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance found that this commitment lagged behind where the country was already headed. Just before the conference began, China announced that it was burning 17 percent more coal — an extra Germany worth of emissions each year — than previously reported, but no, it would not revise its pledge. Nonetheless, President Obama held a joint appearance with China’s President Xi at the start of the conference to laud China’s “consistent cooperation.”

India said nothing about its emissions path. It offered only a 33 to 35 percent improvement in carbon intensity — a decline slower than its present trajectory, and squarely in the middle of preexisting forecasts. The New York Times inexplicably reported the pledge as “India Announces Plan to Lower Rate of Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” President Obama made sure to appear with India’s Prime Minister Modi as well, and offered only words of praise.

Continuing down the list of major developing countries, one finds empty pledge after empty pledge. Pakistan showed particular chutzpah, submitting a single page months after all deadlines had passed with no commitments of any sort beyond the truism that it would “reduce its emissions after reaching peak levels to the extent possible.” When Secretary of State John Kerry defended the deal by saying, “186 nations in the world came together to submit a plan, all of them reducing their emissions,” he was simply not telling the truth.

Advertising such empty promises as progress generates applause for doing nothing, while absolving the parties of further obligations. It fatally undermines both parts of “pledge and review” — pledges are not scrutinized, so review then becomes a pointless exercise of confirming that nations have done as little as they said they would. The approach makes no sense, unless one’s primary objectives all along were applause and absolution.

Exhibit C: The developed world agreed to transfer hundreds of billions of dollars to poor countries, notwithstanding the low quality and ambition of those countries’ INDCs.

“Six years ago,” explained Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, in advance of the talks, “rich countries pledged to provide $100 billion [per year] to poorer countries by 2020.

. . . Paris needs to provide certainty, clarity, and confidence that this promise will be met.”

The final agreement reiterates this commitment and declares $100 billion to be the annual “floor.” It does not specify where the money will actually come from or to whom it will be sent. What are taxpayers in rich countries gaining from such payments? Certainly not a reduced risk of climate change, as the non-binding non-action embedded in developing-world INDCs makes clear. It seems instead that developing nations established the wealth transfers as the price they would charge to sign the agreement that leaders of developed nations so desperately desired. Looking for a legacy-defining international accord? That will be $100 billion per year, please.

Concern for one’s taxpayers, or for the incentives facing developing countries, would argue against such a blank check. Concern for getting an agreement signed at all costs would not.

And so as negotiators worked late into the night, the haggling was not over how far to cut emissions. In fact, there was no negotiation over the emissions themselves. Instead, the U.S. fought with China and India over whether the latter two should even have to report transparently about their ever-rising emissions levels.

Defining the resolution of such issues as success is one way to achieve a successful negotiation. But celebrating the result as a breakthrough makes a mockery of the campaign to “act on climate” and insults the intelligence of millions of people. It’s as if President Kennedy had quietly revised his goal to be putting a man “on my lawn,” but a visit by astronauts to the Rose Garden earned men walk on moon headlines anyway.

At any time in the past 25 years, negotiators could have redefined their goal to be achieving something like Paris, and then quickly reached it. This is called saving face, not saving the world.

Adding together a lot of zeroes yields zero, so, unsurprisingly, the aggregate impact of the world’s INDC commitments is approximately nil. More-optimistic estimates have been derived by comparing the commitments with unrealistically high-carbon alternative scenarios, or by including an assumption that countries will take more aggressive actions sometime in the future. The United Nations itself has played this game, claiming progress by showing that the growth rate of global emissions will slow. But as the U.N.’s own Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explained two years earlier, such a slowdown was expected anyway.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology produced a credible assessment by running their model with and without INDCs and found an improvement over the upcoming century of only 0.2°C — from 3.9°C of warming to 3.7°C. But even that might overstate progress, because their starting point for global emissions is a bit higher than the baseline forecast established by the IPCC in 2000. Using the IPCC baseline with the MIT model, warming is about 3.7°C with or without the INDCs.

So where has all the U.S. leadership led? The justification for rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, as explained by the State Department, rested on the assertion that “granting a Presidential Permit for this proposed Project would undermine U.S. climate leadership and thereby have an adverse impact on encouraging other States to combat climate change.” If costly U.S. action does not spur developing countries to take costly action themselves, then by the Obama administration’s own standards, its climate policy makes no sense.

When the international agreement was a hypothetical future event, domestic climate action could be sold with lofty promises of what an agreement might contain. But now that the ink in Paris has dried, it is all too easy to see how little we got for our trouble. If backers of the Obama agenda argue that this agreement to agree to meet again was the goal all along, they look foolish. Admitting that their approach failed is obviously no better. But the only other option is to double down and suggest yet more leadership, which begins to look blindly dogmatic and will become prohibitively costly as well.

The commitments of billions in “climate finance” only add insult to injury. Most Americans will be shocked to learn that not only did their government pledge strong emissions cuts and ask for none in return, but it is using their tax dollars to grease the wheels. Not by accident has President Obama scrupulously avoided any mention of this topic in front of domestic audiences.

The full scope of the catastrophe will emerge only in the years to come. One of the agreement’s few binding provisions is a requirement for countries to gather and review their commitments and their adherence to them every five years. Given the caliber of the pledges, that promise of review has little value; countries that promised to proceed on their existing trajectories will pass with flying colors. But the United States, whose commitments far exceed what even the aggressive Obama agenda is expected to produce, will be the nation off track.

Americans will be incurring the costs of action. Americans will be sending money overseas. And then countries that pocket the funds while doing the least will get to condemn the United States as the country not doing its part.

On the eve of the conference, the New York Times announced that “Two-Thirds of Americans Want U.S. to Join Climate Change Pact.” But the poll did not explain the nature of the pact under consideration, describing only “an international treaty requiring America to reduce emissions.” One could forgive respondents for assuming that other countries would be likewise obligated.

Morning Consult tried asking the question but first explained:

The agreement could require the United States and other developed nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and provide financial aid to help developing nations reduce emissions in their own countries. At the same time, developing nations, like India and China, may not have to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions at the same level as the United States and other developed nations.

Only 22 percent of registered voters thought America should sign regardless of whether developing countries were required to reduce emissions; in fact, only 26 percent of Democrats supported the president’s approach.

Facing an indefensible deal and therefore an irrational policy agenda, Democrats are trying to shift the debate back to the science — where they can fare well against those Republicans who question whether human-caused climate change is even real. But fewer and fewer Republicans are making that substantive and political mistake; rather, they’ve discovered that the science offers firm ground from which to make their case.

This change produces amusing results, as when NPR covered hearings held by Representative Lamar Smith (R., Texas) in the House Science Committee on the topic of the Paris talks.

Host: What was the agenda here? Was this “the climate deniers have their say”?

Reporter: No, not climate deniers, John. This was a meeting to say: “Look, climate change is real, we all accept that (even if that surprises you), but that Paris won’t help.”

And as the Right gets better at explaining what the science says, the Left is forced to adopt ever more extreme claims. For instance, hidden deep within a regulatory analysis, the Obama administration’s own estimate of the cost in 2100 from a 3°C temperature increase is less than 2 percent of GDP. That’s costly but hardly catastrophic, since the economy grows about that much each year; the prosperity otherwise achieved in 2100 would be postponed by climate change only until 2101.

Estimates like that are unlikely to produce support for a government-led reorganization of the economy. So Bernie Sanders stood up at a debate and warned that “the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable,” an assertion at least as far from the truth as outright refusal to acknowledge any warming of the climate. New York mayor Bill de Blasio traveled to the Vatican to warn that action was “a matter of survival” and critical to “preserving life for future generations.”

The EPA reports that climate change could lead to at least 12,000 additional heat-related deaths of Americans each year by 2100, which translates to an economic cost of $200 billion. The conclusion rests on embarrassingly foolish assumptions that relatively small increases in temperature could cause the rate of heat-related deaths to skyrocket while Americans did nothing to adapt: Pittsburgh’s heat-related-death rate in 2100 would supposedly be 60 times higher than that currently faced in New Orleans, while people in New York would be dying of heat 50 times more frequently than people in Phoenix today. This is not serious.

One could go on. The New Yorker, eagerly blaming climate change for the Syrian civil war and ISIS, cited a study warning that some Middle East cities would be “virtually unlivable in a matter of decades.” Except, as the researcher in question had already taken pains to explain, this interpretation was completely untrue. “I’m learning my lesson in dealing with the media,” he told Eric Holthaus of Slate.

If the topic of conversation is climate policy, conservatives should be winning. They will need to show endless patience in the face of ever more bizarre hyperbole — a Reaganesque “There you go again” is probably about right. And they will need to confidently describe an affirmative policy agenda, preferably emphasizing research and development that might identify new technologies so cheap and clean that developing countries will want to use them along with tools for adapting to whatever climate change does bring.

There they have an important ally in Bill Gates, who doubts that the current generation of wind and solar technology will offer a long-term solution and instead calls for heavy investment in new research and development. In Paris, Gates announced the creation of a multibillion-dollar private-sector investment fund. Smart government policy would likewise redirect the subsidies for solar and other renewables toward laboratories and innovation programs developing the technologies of tomorrow. This approach contrasts starkly with Hillary Clinton’s proposal to increase solar-panel installations sevenfold, an idea whose primary value is that it sounds impressive.

Conservatives shouldn’t be afraid to talk about climate change just because they lack easy solutions. There is no shame in not having all the answers — especially not when the other side has spent the decade “acting” on climate in a way that only a Broadway audience would admire.

– Mr. Cass is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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