The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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The President’s Plan, Part 3

President Obama has already used his executive power to tackle climate change domestically, although his plan will not be fully implemented until next year and it is far from certain it won’t be reversed by his successor. He is now trying a similar approach abroad.

Why the Creative Procedure?

The US Congress refuses to deal with climate change. Domestic bills for dealing with global warming have been dead on arrival in one or both chamber of Congress for years. Since the Constitution stipulates that treaties must be ratified by two thirds of the Senate, climate-responsible treaties are in even worse shape. Even when the Senate is controlled by Democrats, generally the more climate-responsible party, there are always enough naysayers to block a deal. Not only is there significant resistance climate responsibility itself, but there is a big chunk of the United States that is highly suspicious of the United Nations (UN). UN treaties, about the climate or otherwise, have an uphill battle through the US Senate, even if the treaty in question is based on an existing US law.

So, Mr. Obama is now trying to get things done without the help of Congress. He is, of course, taking a lot of political heat for doing so. Detractors argue that the President should not use executive authority to do things that Congress does not want done, that in side-stepping the Legislative Branch he is approaching the role of dictator or king. Supporters argue that the collective will of Congress seems to be that Mr. Obama not be President, something a majority of the American electorate disagreed with. They say that the President owes it to the people who elected him to do his job however he can.

This blog should not take sides except as relates to climate change. With that perspective in mind, therefore, I have called for support for Mr. Obama’s efforts, and will do so again. It is worth noting that his use of executive power is not unprecedented, or even particularly extreme relative to his predecessors.

It is also worth pointing out that this won’t be the first international agreement the US has brokered outside of the treaty ratification process. Many of the country’s trade agreements, including those related to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) are not technically treaties and therefore were never ratified by the US Senate. Instead, Congress gave the President permission to negotiate and agreed to expedite approval of the resulting agreement through Congress, like an ordinary bill. Mr. Obama is not using this process for climate negotiations, but the point is that the US government has been quite comfortable developing new diplomatic procedure.

Arguably, the President’s plan is less of a departure from the treaty procedure than NAFTA, since he is not creating a new class of legally binding international agreement. Instead, he is using a mixture of existing treaties and new, non-binding agreements to create a plan he hopes will be “politically binding.”

What Is the President’s Plan?

The plan is to update an existing treaty from 1992 with non-legally binding international agreements. The result would combine an obligation for countries to make their own domestic emissions-reductions plans with voluntary reduction goals and voluntary pledges for rich countries to send money to poor countries to help them cope with the effects of climate change. Signatory countries would also be legally obligated to report their progress at regular international meetings—so any countries that do not meet their “voluntary” goals will take a political hit on the international stage.

The plan is set to be finalized and enacted at a conference in Paris next year, but the meeting in New York this month will serve as groundwork for the agreement.

So, What Are the Objections?

As noted, the Republicans in Congress do not like this plan. Their reasons largely boil down to an objection to any climate agreement at all. Meanwhile, there are international objections to the effect that the agreement doesn’t go far enough.

The issue is many of the countries most likely to suffer from global warming—low-lying coastal nations and those in Africa—are also among those with the fewest economic resources and the least responsibility for creating the problem. They are unlikely to commit to anything unless the United States commits as well. They need international help to deal with extreme weather, sea level rise, and famine, and they do not want to bear the costs of reducing emissions if the countries that caused the problem in the first place don’t.

Where Does that Leave Us?

This hybrid, semi-voluntary agreement may be the best the US can do at the moment, and it is clear that if the US does not come on board, little to no international movement is possible. The United States, China, and India are the lynchpins of the whole process. It is easy to say the plan isn’t enough; we need an international treaty obligating the whole world to begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions immediately, to phase out fossil fuels entirely by 2050. Or else. But that might not be an option.

It’s a bad idea to let “great” be the enemy of “good” when “great” isn’t available.

The problem is that certain people don’t want to reduce fossil fuel use at all. If we refuse to take small steps because they are too small, those people win.

Once again, the meeting in New York City this month, and the associated demonstrations, offer a wonderful opportunity to show political support for the best chance we have at meaningful progress on climate.

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Can-Do

The Climate Action Network (CAN) has issued a position paper calling for immediate reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a complete end to fossil fuel use—to be replaced by “sustainable energy available to all” –by 2050.

CAN points out that only by STOPPING fossil fuel use entirely do we have a realistic chance of keeping the temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees—that’s the limit beyond which catastrophic effects, including runaway feedback loops, become ever more likely. The 2050 transition is possible with current technology and “politically feasible if we so choose.” Can refers to the recent UN report on climate change as further proof of the seriousness of our situation and points out that the existing energy infrastructure is inefficient and expensive, anyway. Switching over could bring a lot of benefits in addition to averting the end of the world.

In all of this, CAN is correct. Plans to merely reduce fossil fuel use will not be enough because burning these fuels, by definition, involves adding greenhouse gasses to atmospheric circulation and that means further warming.

Basically, if you have a bucket that is almost full of water and you do not want it to spill over, you have to stop adding water to the bucket. Adding water slowly is not going to prevent it from spilling.

Of course, any reduction is good—it buys us time and exercises political muscle in the right direction. We should not waste energy by protesting half measures, rather, we should thank the people who take those partial steps and keep fighting for more.

But CAN’s phrase, “politically feasible if we choose” is the rub. The reality is that we don’t need another report, another plan, another timetable. CAN is only saying what has been more or less clear for thirty years, now. Had the world taken definitive, assertive steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions then, instead of allowing emissions to increase dramatically, we could have gradually shifted over to an all-renewable energy infrastructure and the transition could have been nearly complete by now. Greenhouse gas emissions would certainly be a lot lower and we would not now be hearing about exploding permafrost in Siberia. Think of all the oil spills, coal ash spills, coal mine disasters and air quality alerts we might have been spared as well.

That ship of possibility sailed without us, not because world leaders didn’t have a plan or a timetable and not because they lacked a specific level of warming to avoid or a specific carbon budget to follow but because, frankly, the fossil fuel industry is politically powerful and doesn’t want to lose its business. Meaningful climate negotiations have so far failed because the governments of certain countries—notably the United States—made sure they would fail. Individuals, such as Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and now President Obama, have worked very hard to provide meaningful government leadership, but have consistently been blocked by Congress and undone by their successors. The reality is that public figures fear they will not be re-elected if they support action on greenhouse gases, and they may be right. Other industrialized countries are, to varying degrees, in the same situation.

CAN is right to advance their uncompromising outline for action, but there is no reason to believe a goal alone will change anything. The political climate must change first.

Climates don’t change unless something changes them. We don’t need to fight atmospheric climate change; we need to stop changing the atmosphere. We do need to fight to change the political climate, and the upcoming march in New York is a great way to do that. We need legally binding greenhouse emissions reductions, with real consequences for violators, both at home and abroad, in every industrialized country on Earth. And we need to show our elected officials that if they do this for us we will reward them at the polls. If they don’t, we won’t.

Even in the United States, where a large percentage of the population does not believe global warming is real, enough people do that if all of us voted for public officials who were serious about climate change (including at the local level)–and refused to vote for those who were not—it would be very hard for anyone to get elected without us.

We can do this.