A Way to Win the Climate Fight?

There's a tense scene in Eric Pooley's The Climate War when Jim Rogers, CEO of coal utility Duke Energy and leader of a shaky coalition of power companies, faces a moment of truth. Ten Fortune 500 companies and four major environmental groups are at the table. They've got a statement of legislative principles they can agree on and are ready to throw their collective weight behind a long-overdue comprehensive climate-change bill in the United States. They just need his sign-off. For Rogers, under intense pressure from his industry's biggest polluters, it amounts to a career-risking leap into the dark.

"OK," he says. "If you write it right, I'm in."

It's a moment of genuine drama, one of many in a book that might seem unlikely to have any dramatic tension given that its subject is a decades-long stretch of conferences, meetings, and PowerPoint presentations. From this florescent-lit raw material, Pooley weaves the kind of propulsive potboiler political junkies love to read. It does for the U.S. pursuit of a climate bill what Game Change did for the 2008 campaign: It thrusts readers behind the scenes at a crossroads in history.

But Pooley's book doesn't end with an unlikely triumph. It doesn't end with a fateful failure. It doesn't really end at all, so much as ... stop. It builds to a crescendo that never arrives. The international climate summit in Copenhagen, heralded by environmentalists as the world's last, best hope, failed to produce a successor to the Kyoto Protocol and petered out in a voluntary bits-and-bobs accord. Stateside, momentum behind a climate bill ground to a halt in that burial ground of all hope and aspiration, the U.S. Senate (a story told in sordid detail by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker last October).

Then came the Tea Party midterms and a savage backlash against climate legislation and clean-energy policy. The events in The Climate War now read less like a breakthrough than a breaking wave in the tidal cycle of high hopes and bitter disappointment that have characterized climate-change advocacy for decades.

What's going wrong? Why can't the United States and the international community start seriously reducing climate pollution? Is history just waiting for another Jim Rogers to be in the right conference room at the right moment?

According to David Victor's new book, Global Warming Gridlock, the problem runs much deeper. In fact, climate negotiators are operating under the influence of a series of myths and misunderstandings that doom their strategy to perpetual failure.

Victor, a political scientist who directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, San Diego, is a bit of a climate Zelig. For two decades, he's been popping up everywhere, leading study groups, working as a consultant to governments and businesses, and serving on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He has seen firsthand the failure to make substantial progress on climate policy, and he's been taking notes.

There's ample reason for alarm about climate change. The odds of catastrophic impacts rise with each day of delay, yet the status quo has inertia and powerful interests on its side. A problem so terrible, so intractable, seems to call for a response of commensurate size and force. As Victor tells it, however, that sense of desperate urgency felt by climate scientists and campaigners is precisely what's led to their undoing.

The quest for a grand solution follows a three-step process. First, scientists determine how much warming is too much and draw a "red line." Today, that line is typically presented as 2 degrees Celsius warming above pre-industrial levels, the official target of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the G-8. Second, they determine the level of emission reductions necessary to avoid the red line. Third, diplomats bring the world's countries together to sign a collective treaty pledging to achieve those reductions.

This top-down strategy is seductive, which is why it's been central to international climate negotiations since the signing of the Rio Declaration in 1992. But as a practical matter, it's not working. There have been summits, dialogues, symposia, and great, gushing torrents of talk, but climate-warming emissions have continued their inexorable upward trajectory. Climate diplomacy has yielded "the illusion of action but not much impact on the underlying problem," Victor writes.

The strategy fails because it is driven by persistent misunderstandings about how nation-states interact with the international community. First is what Victor calls the scientist's myth, the idea that a clearer, stronger, louder scientific consensus about what level of warming is dangerous will change politics. But national leaders have overwhelming incentives to focus on their countries' short-term welfare, not on global dangers. "Most of these line-drawing efforts," he notes, "have very little real impact on policy."

Second is the environmentalist's myth that climate change is an "environmental problem," best addressed by treaties establishing targets and timetables for the reduction of harmful emissions. That model has worked for other environmental problems, most notably the Montreal Protocol reducing ozone-damaging chemicals, but it is badly suited to climate change, which is better seen as a problem of economics, infrastructure, and innovation.

Finally, there's the engineer's myth, which holds that climate change will be easy to tackle because inventors will develop new technologies to lower the cost of reducing pollution. Thus the alluring appeal of technological "breakthroughs." The engineer's myth "obscures the wide array of factors that determine the rate at which new technologies actually enter into service," Victor says. Those factors include research and development, early-stage financing, and market barriers and opportunities.

All these myths push strategy toward broad treaties built around pollution targets and timetables. If that strategy cannot succeed, what strategy can? It begins, Victor argues, "by slowing down and refocusing on fundamentals," namely national interests and capabilities.

Above all, he says, climate campaigners must abandon their scientism and take emission-reduction targets off center stage. National leaders cannot credibly promise particular emission levels in the short- to midterm. Emissions are determined by too many forces outside governmental control, including fossil-fuel prices, trade, and the pace of economic growth. The focus on targets is an invitation to empty grandstanding and lowest-common-denominator agreements. What leaders can credibly promise are policies, and policies, not numerical targets, should be at the center of climate accords, Victor argues.

Policies of any ambition are best coordinated among a bounded group of participants. By requiring unanimous consent among 193 participating countries, the UNFCCC process effectively guarantees treaties that reflect the lowest bid of its least ambitious members. Yet there is no substantive reason to require the involvement of every single country. After all, the top dozen emitters (counting the European Union as a single emitter) account for 74 percent of global emissions from fossil fuels. To make the size of the negotiating table more tractable, Victor suggests a "carbon club" along the lines of the World Trade Organization. Members would "bid in" with policies geared to their own national circumstances and, crucially, add contingent offers predicated on action from other members. Within the club, those contingent offers and shared benefits would create a virtuous cycle. Meanwhile, the club would craft smart incentives to lure in new members. (The Clean Development Mechanism -- Kyoto's main way of offering "carrots" to developing countries for emission reductions -- has proved largely ineffectual.)

Even if countries do begin moving forward, changes of the scale required are going to be more difficult, expensive, and protracted than most climate hawks believe, Victor warns. When economists model the costs of addressing climate change, they frequently assume market-based policies like a carbon tax that distribute costs in a fair and transparent way. But precisely because such policies are up-front about costs, they tend to be politically unpopular. "The basic logic of good economic design is fungibility and transparency," Victor notes ruefully. "The basic logic of politics encourages the hiding and channeling of costs and benefits." Politically powerful constituencies will organize to capture more than their share of benefits and avoid their share of the costs. That pushes politicians toward policies like direct regulation that impose higher net costs but hide those costs better and therefore elicit less blowback. "Political forces strongly favor policy choices that are exactly reverse the advice of expert economists," Victor writes, thus the cost of tackling climate change is likely to be higher than economists project.

Similarly, driving down costs via new technology is no simple matter either, the engineer's myth notwithstanding. For decades, energy has been one of the least innovative sectors of the economy. Crafting an innovation system that drives technologies from basic-science research and development through early-stage funding and sustainable business enterprise will require smart, active government and lots of money. Most of all, it will take time to ramp up the effort.

If the picture Victor paints of progress is accurate -- bottom-up, halting, and slow -- one unsettling conclusion is unavoidable: 2 degrees is probably already out of reach. Substantial climate change is already "in the pipeline," and further deterioration is all but inevitable. Consequently, the international community needs to get much more serious about adaptation and, in the event of climate emergencies, the fallback option of geo-engineering.

Adaptation has played a large role in the international discussion, but Victor argues that the climate community is unduly focused on the creation of a large adaptation fund for vulnerable developing countries. Preparing for and responding to climate changes are not discrete activities; they are largely coterminous with economic development more broadly. The strong institutions that societies will need to coordinate climate response are the same ones that yield economic growth and security. "Mainstreaming adaptation into traditional well-managed development assistance is probably the most effective and moral strategy," he says. However, just as providing effective economic-development assistance has been challenging, so it is with adaptation funding. The unpleasant truth is that there's probably not a great deal rich countries can do to help poor ones prepare for climate change, no matter how well-meaning the wealthy nations may be. The economic and institutional reforms that yield development and resilience tend to arise from inside a country, not outside.

The weight of all this grim and unsentimental counsel from Victor can be difficult to take, especially as it's written in a form something like the opposite of a potboiler. Unlike Pooley's tome, Victor's has no narrative, no human drama, only careful, painstaking, left-brain analysis that reads like an elaborate outline come to life. Each category has subcategories, each chart has quadrants. Occasionally, the quadrants have quadrants. This is a book for policy nerds, albeit a book with far more grounding in political science than the typical wonk tome.

It's hard to argue with Victor's basic thrust -- the world of climate advocacy and diplomacy is long overdue for a heavy dose of realpolitik -- but in his zeal to contrast his new approach with the old, Victor passes too lightly over promising trends already moving in his direction.

For instance, the notion that smaller groups than the UNFCCC are needed for serious climate negotiations is now practically conventional wisdom in developed countries. Climate has moved to the center of discussion at the G-8 and the Major Economies Forum. A treaty composed of policy commitments based on national interests and capabilities? Well, that's what the Copenhagen Accord turned out to be, if more by default than design, and that's almost certainly what any future international agreement will look like.

Victor laments the difficulties of innovating around giant, capital-intensive energy projects. Then, almost as an aside, he notes the possibility "that in the future the energy industry -- steeped in smart grids, 'plug and play' electric technologies, advanced biofuels and other innovations -- will look a lot like today's biotechnology and information technology industries" -- that is, distributed, small-scale, fast, and low-risk. In fact, such a transformation is already under way and, more to the point, could be accelerated by smart policy.

For all the quibbles, though, Victor's book almost certainly provides a more honest picture of the barriers to tackling climate change than the kind of romantic narrative offered by Pooley and other political journalists. After 20 years, it may be time to admit that the climate movement's fundamental strategy, not a deficit of personal courage or heroic striving, is behind the lack of progress. If the movement is to rise to its historic challenge, it will have to do so by working with nation-states as they actually exist.

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