The Politics of Climate Change

The failure to reduce greenhouse gases increases poverty, migration and disease

Opinion | Richard N. Haas | October 2009

"Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen," a popular song from the 1952 film musical "Hans Christian Andersen," will probably be played many times this fall, as world leaders will be gathering in the Danish capital in December (and in New York in September) to confront the challenge of climate change. But, unless international thinking gets considerably more realistic in a hurry, what happens in Copenhagen will be anything but wonderful.

It should come as no surprise that there is little consensus on a comprehensive accord that would have a meaningful impact on the world’s climate. Governments will not sacrifice near- and medium-term economic growth for long-term environmental benefits. This is especially true now, given that much of the developed world is in the midst of a painful recession. The United States, for one, will not accept ceilings that reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions significantly if it means accepting higher costs and taxes that risk slowing economic recovery.

Developing countries are, if anything, even more opposed to such ceilings or "caps." Four hundred million Indians still lack electricity; India cannot be expected to rule out greater use of coal if that proves to be the best way to produce electricity for one-third of its citizens. China, too, is unlikely to agree to "caps" on emissions of any kind, g iven the relatively low standard of living of most Chinese. But such a stance dooms prospects for a new global treaty, as developed countries will rightly insist that poorer countries be part of the solution.

The consequences of failure in Copenhagen could be considerable. In the short run, we may well see climate-related concerns become the newest excuse for increased trade protectionism. So-called "carbon tariffs" are likely to be introduced to penalize imports from countries or companies deemed not to be doing enough to curb emissions. World trade is already down sharply as a result of the economic crisis; introducing new tariffs would inevitably reduce trade further, causing the loss of additional jobs and leading to new frictions.

Over time, a failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would lead to additional climate change, which in turn would increase the severity of poverty, the scale of internal displacement and migration, the scarcity of water, the prevalence of disease, and the number and intensity of storms. The result could be more failed states and more conflict between states. Climate change is as much a matter of security as it is an economic and human concern.

So what should be done? The most important step for those preparing for Copenhagen is to embrace national policies that increase energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The US has at long last done some of this in adopting new and much higher standards for automobile fuel efficiency. Regulatory policy can increase the efficiency of appliances, housing, and machinery. Such reforms should appeal to rich and poor countries alike, as they would reduce spending on energy and dependence on oil imports.

Coordinated national actions are not the same as unilateralism. But to describe a challenge as global is not to argue that the remedy is to be found only in an ambitious, formal, and universal treaty. Such an accord might well be desirable, but it is simply not an option for climate change any time soon.

Coal is one place to begin, as it will continue to generate the lion’s share of the world’s electricity for decades to come. Greater sharing of existing cleaner-coal technologies is needed, as is continued development of next-generation clean-coal plants.

Nuclear power is another area requiring attention. So, too, are renewable forms of power, such as solar and wind. Moreover, stopping the destruction of forests is essential, given how much carbon is trapped in them . One objective for Copenhagen should be to create a well-endowed global fund to support policies that discourage the cutting and burning of trees, help countries such as Brazil and Indonesia protect their rain forests, and provide alternative livelihoods to those who currently benefit from destroying them.

Focusing on steps such as these would go a long way toward attaining the often-discussed goal of halving global carbon emissions by mid-century. But reaching an accord that sets binding ceilings for what each country will be allowed to emit is not an option in Copenhagen. The consensus simply does not exist.

Smaller steps, however, can and should be taken. Those who want to master the challenge of climate change now will reject such realism. But, as is often the case, those who insist on getting everything risk getting nothing.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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