Monday, December 21, 2009

The Blame Game and "Climate Realpolitik"

Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University's Earth Institute is blaming President Obama (here) for subverting international negotiations at the Copenhagen climate meetings. Meanwhile, the UK's Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband, blames China and other developing countries (here). Both are right, and both are short-sighted.

Sachs is right that Obama, in essence, has embraced the Bush Administration's real politque approach to climate negotiations, which rejects the all-embracing, comprehensive approach of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and Kyoto Protocol, in favor of negotiating only with the big boys - the major GHG emitters - to minimize rent-seeking by developing countries among other collective-action problems. (Obama's approach is distinguished from the Bush Administration's efforts, however, by his apparent sincerity about achieving meaningful GHG emissions reductions.)

Meanwhile, Miliband is right that China is playing a not-so-subtle game, seeking to create an impression that it is making meaningful commitments without subscribing to international institutions that would make those commitments credible. Neither the US delegation nor the Chinese delegation showed much concern in Copenhagen for the interests of Bangladesh, the Tuvalu Islands, or African countries that are most at risk from climate change. Then again, those countries (with the notable exception of Brazil) did not greatly influence the structure of the Framework Convention on Climate Change or the Kyoto Protocol either.

In sum, I think Sachs and Miliband are both a bit unrealistic and short-sighted because (a) there is little reason for anyone to believe that more or better could have been accomplished at Copenhagen (in the absence of a credible commitment from the US, in the form of climate legislation) and (b) what did happen at Copenhagen - including  President Obama's insistence on the verifiability of emissions reductions from all countries, and China's belated concession (even if it was "cheap talk") of the need for greater "transparency," bodes well for future negotiations of a more realistic and effective climate treaty. It signals the emergence, as Jesse Jenkins at The Energy Collective has noted, of a new "Climate Realpolitik."

Realistically, we will not know whether the Copenhagen negotiations were a success or failure for anywhere from one to three years (if then). But their success (or failure) definitely does not hinge on whether or not the parties ultimately extend existing institutions from the Kyoto Protocol, which has itself been a remarkable failure. Whether Kyoto lives or dies is not the issue. The issues are whether (a) the world's leading greenhouse gas emitters can agree to real and verifiable emissions within deadlines to limit the total amount of  global warming over the next century to reasonably safe levels, and (b) the international community as a whole can agree to mechanisms and a funding formula to assist developing countries avoid or bear adaptation-related costs. Neither of those things was ever likely to be settled at Copenhagen.

UPDATE: Over at the Becker-Posner BlogGary Becker and Richard Posner both label Copenhagen a "failure." Becker seems semi-relieved; Posner, who believes that abrupt climate change is a serious threat, and not just in the long run, is not. Obviously, given what I wrote above, I agree with Posner that rent-seeking games are being played out. I also agree with Becker that developing countries, including China, are going to have to be "paid to play." So, on what basis am I less concerned about the outcome of Copenhagen than either Becker or Posner? Good question (if I do say so myself).

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