The politics of climate change

By Megan McArdle

So you can expect a great deal of climate change blogging this week, what with the UN meeting and all. Matt, Ezra, and Mr Brian Beutler are all in New York City, blogging about the elaborate kabuki going on there.

Ezra and Mr Beutler both ask why world leaders aren't putting genuine pressure on the American government (and to a lesser extent, the Chinese and Indian governments) to come to the table and negotiate.

The U.N. is not by design a political body, and it's not a lobby, and there may be no way to organize that kind of outcry. But what I tried to stress tonight, in conversations with both gentlemen, was that solving climate change will only be possible after solving the domestic political situation in America. There's a sense, I fear, that the world thinks it can just wait until George W. Bush is out of office and then everything will be fine. I think this mindset is disastrous. It involves waiting a year and a half (or, perhaps, five-to-ten percent of the time we have before us if we're going to forestall the worst of the crisis) and it fundamentally misunderstand key aspects of the American political system.

Nuttall stressed to me repeatedly that climate change presents a plethora of economic opportunities and that, in an even longer-term sense, a carbon economy--based as it is on finite resources--simply won't be possible anymore. I agree. But I suspect very strongly that if he spoke with a representative sample of American congressmen, they would mostly agree as well. Then he'd sit back and watch as those same congressmen returned to their offices and continued to do almost nothing. Al Gore could become president next November, and there would still be high walls separating the status quo from meaningful change. What ultimately must be upset are the short term incentives politicians face when weighing the importance of associating themselves with a cause whose benefits (and blowbacks) won't be evident for many election cycles to come.

One way to do that would be for the Secretary General of the U.N. to lend his support to the forces that might make obstructing action on climate change as politically disastrous for American politicians as obstructing action on the Iraq war will likely prove to be next fall. To make sure that big, important people--foreign leaders well regarded in America--speak frankly and publicly about what America's role has been in creating and continuing the crisis, and what it must do mitigate it.

But Matt argues that the theater matters:

The basic shape of the issue goes back to Kyoto and the late 1990s. Everyone knew that that agreement wasn't nearly tough enough to take care of the problem. But the thinking was that if you could get everyone to commit to the principle "reduce carbon emissions to halt global warming" that when the initial measures agreed to proved inadequate, governments would be compelled to step things up. Then came George W. Bush and his decision to "un-sign" Kyoto. Not only did that prevent the USA from moving forward, but it essentially got all the other governments of the world off the hook. With Bush so intransigent of course nothing was going to work.

Meanwhile, there's a need for a successor treaty to Kyoto to govern the world after 2012. The thinking is that it takes two years to negotiate a treaty, and then two years to get it ratified. Thus, we need to start next year at a scheduled meeting in Bali, Indonesia. But if the world's governments sit down in Bali next year cold after years of inactivity, then nothing's going to happen. So there's a kind of kabuki meeting happening this year to get things rolling. Since nothing's going to happen, Bush is willing to participate -- Condi Rice will be at the formal meeting, and Bush himself at an informal one with other heads of government this evening -- but that itself signifies that the process is getting rolling again. The idea, then, is that the next administration will be able to hit the ground running, stepping into a process that's already under way.

Both of these strike me as extraordinarily naive. America is not going to sign onto any sort of significant, comprehensive reduction strategy as part of a global treaty. Before my liberal readers freak out, this does not make me happy. I'm one of those crunchy cons (well, crunchy libertarians, anyway), you've been reading about. The odds are very good that I support stiffer carbon taxes, and live a lower-carbon, more environmentally friendly lifestyle, than you do. But politically, I don't see any way that this is going to happen.

Environmentalism isn't as powerful a movement in America as it is in Europe. Moreover, greenhouse reduction is costlier here than it is in Europe. And this is not because Europe is more virtuous. It is because Europe is denser. Which is not because Europe is more virtuous. Europe is denser because it has been agriculturally settled much longer than North America, where agriculture only really got going with the advent of corn ca 1000 AD. And of course, European epidemics killed off many of the local residents, allowing European immigrants to settle their sparsely populated lands.

Given the costs, it is politically much harder to get meaningful reduction. It is particularly politically hard because federalism gives power to sparsely populated states which will suffer disproportionately from meaningful reductions. In rural America, there is no good alternative to car travel, nor will there be one; and most rural Americans are unwilling to go back to a 19th century lifestyle where going to town was a major event, the festive highlight of a long and lonely week.

What is politically feasible are modest measures, such as a small carbon tax. That might be the camel's nose under the tent, allowing it to be ratcheted up over time. But any Kyoto-style agreement is doomed to fail, not least because America is a hated, envied and feared minority of one. The other countries at the table are going to push for structures, as in Kyoto, that are disproportionately costly to America. Morally, this is arguably correct; but politically, even if such a treaty secures the support of a Democratic administration's negotiators, it will be dead letter in the Senate. This being what happened to Kyoto. Despite what Matt says, I fail to see how Bush made any difference, given that the Senate had rejected the treaty 99-0 with one abstainer.

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