Wednesday, November 25, 2009

President Obama's Incredible Commitments

The New York Times is reporting (here) that President Obama will travel to Copenhagen next month for  climate change talks, bearing a US "pledge" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020, and 84% by 2050.

From my perspective, there are two problems with the president's plan: (1) As I argued in an earlier post, getting the institutions right is more important at this point in time than setting emissions reduction targets. I recognize that, as a practical matter, setting targets may be a necessary prerequisite to instituting regulatory policies, but targets without policy prescriptions are senseless. (2) A president's "pledge" that is not backed up by legislation has little credibility, and a pledge about targets 40 years in the future is not credible at all. Thomas Schelling, the 2005 Nobel laureate in economics, and Oliver Williamson, one of this year's winners, have each written extensively about the need for commitments to be credible in order to achieve strategic aims. Because the president's pledge does not amount to a credible commitment, it seems unlikely to have much affect on any other country participating in the Copenhagen talks.

The New York Times article opines that President Obama's strategy may be intended primarily for domestic, rather than international, consumption: by committing to emissions reduction targets at an important international meeting, he may ratchet up pressure on the Senate to pass climate legislation early next year. Whether or not that is a sensible strategy, the fact remains that Congress's failure to complete work on climate legislation this year has weakened the President's legitimacy at Copenhagen, and reduced the already low probability that the parties might adopt a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol this year. That, in itself, may not be such a bad thing, however, if delay results in the design of an improved protocol, which is at least barely possible.

I fear that President Obama's second trip this year to Copenhagen will prove no more successful than his first (in support of Chicago's bid to host the Olympics).

UPDATE: According to this story in the Daily Telegraph, President Obama's 2020 commitment of a 17% GHG emissions reduction from 2005 only amounts to a 4% reduction from 1990 emissions, which is below the commitment the US made in the Kyoto Protocol, which President Clinton signed, but the Senate never ratified. Other countries, including the EU, that are working to meet their Kyoto targets are hardly likely to be wowed by such a commitment.

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