Why enviros can’t sleep at night

Guess what keeps environmentalists up at night? And worries me, too?

If President Obama and the Democrats are struggling to find 60 votes in the Senate to pass domestic climate-change legislation, how on earth will they get the 67 votes needed to ratify a global treaty to deal with the problem, even assuming –and this is a big assumption — that the UNFCCC (that’s the United Nations Framework  Convention on Climate Change, for the uninitiated) can get a global deal done this winter in Copenhagen?

For the U.S. to approve a climate bill and a treaty, Congress will have to be persuaded of three things:

  1. A cap-and-trade scheme that few people understand will help, not harm, the economy.
  2. It makes sense to ship American consumer or taxpayer dollars to China and India, to help those countries develop low-carbon economies.
  3. We can trust the UN to make the whole shebang work.

See the problem?

The climate-change issue takes center stage next week when President Obama addresses the UN in New York, and government officials from around the world converge on the city for a series of events organized as part of Climate Week. (I’ll be moderating a panel on carbon finance for Greenbiz.com and Ecosecurities on Tuesday afternoon; email me if you’d like an invitation.)

Mark Kenber
Mark Kenber

To get some insight into the global negotiations, I met with Mark Kenber, policy director of The Climate Group, a global NGO that is working with government and business leaders all  to get a deal done. The Climate Group’s point man is Tony Blair, so these folks get in to see anyone they want. They have published an excellent series of reports on the politics, economics and technology of climate, all of them in plain English and with few wasted words. In fact, the studies are designed with CEOs and heads of government in mind – people with no time to waste – so they provide an excellent overview of the issues. I’d especially recommend a 2008 report called Breaking the Climate Deadlock: A Global Deal for Our Low Carbon Future [PDF]

To get approval from the world’s powers, any climate deal will need several components, Kenber told me. Rich countries including the U.S., the EU and Japan will have to agree to cap and radically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Poor countries like India, China, Brazil and Indonesia, who won’t agree to a cap, at least now, will nevertheless have to commit to take actions on their own. And–here’s the tricky part, from a political perspective–the rich countries will have to agree to help the poor countries do things that they can’t afford to do on their own, like develop renewable sources of energy (which, for now, anyway, are more expensive than the alternative, coal) or create alternative livelihoods for people who now support themselves by cutting down trees for logging or agriculture.

Just try explaining to the American taxpayer, and voter, that we should send money to China to help them build solar plants, or pay poor Brazilians a subsidy so long as they don’t cut down trees.

And yet, the fact is, reducing emissions is much cheaper in poor countries than it is here. And since, from an environmental standpoint, a ton of carbon reduction bring the same benefits, no matter where it happens, it’s actually in our interests to subsidize carbon reduction in the developing world.

That’s just one reason why it makes sense for rich countries to help poor countries mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change. Maybe the biggest argument on behalf of a flow of capital from the north to the south is that, to put it bluntly, we (meaning the developed world) created this terrible mess known as the climate crisis. So we should clean it up. That’s the historical argument.

“Historically, it is the US, the EU and to a lesser extent Japan who contributed most of the carbon in the atmosphere,” Kenber said. The Brits, after all, have been burning coal for a couple of centuries.

Then there’s the gluttony argument. While China has passed America as the nation that emits more greenhouse gases than any other, Americans remain near the top of the list of  per capita emitters of heat-trapping pollutants. (We’re not No. 1. Persian Gulf oil states like Qatar and the UAE are bigger emitters, according to this list on Wikipedia.)

Then there’s the capacity argument. Like it or not, solving the climate crisis will require major investments up front, even if it does create jobs and wealth down the line. Put bluntly, Americans have the money; the Chinese don’t. (Our government doesn’t have the money, but that’s another story.)

The UN likes to say that rich and poor countries have “common but differentiated responsibilities,” Kenber told me. Put another way, everybody’s got to pitch in to help, but not in a uniform way. One reason is, again, that it’s cost-efficient to spend money on reductions in the developing world because it’s not developed yet. (Duh!) It’s cheaper, for example, to build an energy-efficient building from the ground up than it is to take an existing building and retrofit it. Kenber estimates roughly two-thirds of the reductions of carbon emissions that can be made at a relatively low cost–say, $50 a ton or less–can be made in poor countries.

If this were merely about helping “poor countries,” President Obama, green Democrats and environmentalists might be able to sell it to the American public. The trouble is, one of those poor countries is China, which many Americans regard (wrongly, I think) as a threat. According to Kenber, one congressional staffer recently told him: “If it’s in India, people are less worried, If it’s Mexico, people are less worried. But we have a pathological fear of China.”

That’s why there is talk in Congress of erecting trade barriers if we put a cap on carbon emissions and other nations, particularly China, do not. The idea there is to protect domestic manufacturers, who are paying the cost of emitting carbon, from competition from other countries that have not adopted cap-and-trade or a carbon tax. Trade barriers are likely to scuttle any deal–what would benefit both the U.S. and China is the free flow of low-carbon goods and services across borders.

“China wants a deal in Copenhagen,” Kenber says. “They realize that there’s a big opportunity in the low-carbon economy for them.”

There’s an opportunity for the U.S., too. Not to mention a moral obligation to deal with the climate threat and not leave it as a legacy for our children. The question is, can we find the political will to act?


  1. Stuart says


    You write:

    “Put bluntly, Americans have the money; the Chinese don’t. (Our government doesn’t have the money, but that’s another story.) …………… Not to mention a moral obligation to deal with the climate threat and not leave it as a legacy for our children.”

    The money issue is not another story; it is a key part of your moral obligation statement.
    We can’t do everything, so choices have to be made. Here are issues that require investment with my “moral imperative to our children” ranking.

    1) Fixing our structural deficit; we are on the road to the deficit being 100% of GDP in 10 -12 years. There is no greater failure to our children then this. On a practical note, our current direction won’t allow us to invest in anything, because we will be too poor.
    2) Climate change
    3) Expanded U.S. healthcare to a nation already blessed with health care that 95% of the world can’t dream of…….
    4) Spending $100 – 200 Billion a year in our Mideast war/nation building experiment.

    How would you rank these 4 items? President Obama picks health care first, war second, climate change third, and our structural deficit last. And this understates the case because he is expending 95% of his political capital on health care.
    That doesn’t make sense to me.

  2. says

    Stuart, you raise a good question.

    My priorities are (1) climate (2) deficit reduction and that’s it for now, unless we come up with a health care plan that reduces costs to the government and increases coverage. The Atlantic had a great cover story last month that points the way forward, using markets to reduce costs, give customers more power over their care and expand coverage. See “How American Health Care Killed My Father.”


    So President Obama’s priorities don’t make sense to me, either.

    I view climate and deficit reduction as legacy issues. Ignore them and we are failing our children and grandchildren.

    They are also both “investments,” a word that Democrats wildly overuse to describe any kind of spending. Dealing with climate change will have a short term cost. We’ll create “green jobs” but destroy brown ones. But over time, a more efficient and low-carbon economy will be a more prosperous one.

    Similarly, moving closer to a pay-as-you-go government will increase the capital available for private investment and spur growth, which is the best way to lift people out of poverty–and, not incidentally, help more of us afford health care.

    None of it will matter, though, if we don’t deal with the climate emergency.


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