Views of climate change politics after Paris from those with front-row seats
by Allen Best
It was an odd scene on the campus of the University of Colorado at Boulder on Monday evening. The forum was called “Climate Change after Paris,” part of a series sponsored by the university’s Center for Western Civilization, Thought & Policy. A panel of five was assembled, intended to reflect a diversity of perspectives.
At times, the conversation by these panelists soared with as much insight on the international politics of climate change as I’ve heard. I’ve heard a lot. Particularly good were Juliet Eilperin, a Washington Post correspondent who is now bureau chief for the White House but who, beginning in 2006, covered climate change for several years.
Even more insightful was her husband, Andrew Light, senior advisor to the U.S. special envoy on climate change. He has worked for Secretary of State John Kerry among a host of other high-profile positions, with a multitude of specializations on his resume posted at his current post at George Mason University. Eilperin, in introducing herself, said she deliberately chose to take herself off the climate beat, in the interest of a more harmonious marriage. Journalists, she said, tend to be skeptical, and her husband was innately optimistic.
Their dinner-table conversations must be fascinating. Both delivered nuanced observations, neither partisan nor ideological. They both accept climate change as a major world issue, however. To some people, taking climate change seriously is evidence of elitism or some other moral defect. Several audience members made that clear when questions were solicited.
“Sarah Palin is smarter than everybody on this panel,” said one man. Other statements, masquerading as questions, also bordered on belligerence. Why weren’t there business people on the panel? Did people drive instead of walk to the session? What was the urgency in addressing emissions? The badgering hostility was puzzling. There’s a stubborn resistance to any evidence that humans have had a role in altering the global climate.
Politics of climate change, however, are fraught with complexity, as both Eilperin and Light explained. The essential pivot for the international effort came the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. It was dead on arrival. Even before envoys went to Japan, the U.S. Senate had voted 95-0 expressing disapproval of any international agreement that did not require developing countries to make emission reductions.
Participation in Kyoto was low: nations responsible for just 25 percent of the global emissions made commitments. By the time of Copenhagen, in 2009, the international effort had broadened to 70 percent of emissions. The Paris agreement has pledges from countries responsible for 98 percent of the global emissions.
Light identified competition as a key element why Paris succeeded where others flagged. Of particular importance was the rivalry and then cooperation between the United States and China. When the United States pledged $3 billion to help poor countries deal with global warming, China upped the ante to $3.1 billion. And when the U.S.-Chinese partnership, which many viewed as essential to the success of the Paris talks, was announced, the Chinese premier did so at the White House, side by side with the U.S. president. That mattered to the Chinese, intent on being seen as equals to the Americans.
A major element of the Paris agreement is its effort to ensure transparency and hence accountability: emissions reductions must be proven periodically. The format is called pledge and review. The agreement relies on a bottoms-up approach. Nations committed to what they thought attainable, instead of being told what they must do.
Climate change wasn’t always a partisan issue in the United States. The 1997 vote was non-partisan. In 2008, both presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, embraced need for carbon limits. They differed primarily on their preferred targets for emissions reductions by 2050.
Eilperin pointed out consistencies between the administrations of President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. Both administrations pushed to overturn the premise of Kyoto, that developing nations would get a pass on efforts to reduce emissions. After all, China and other developing countries were fast becoming major emitters, too.
This year, for the first time, climate change will likely be a major point of discussion in the presidential campaigns. Eilperin contrasted the views of Marco Rubio, the leading mainstream Republican Party candidate, who affirms a belief in American exceptionalism. Obama, in contrast, has made it clear that he believes in the importance of enduring international institutions for solving world problems. He calls it the “architecture.”
“He is incredibly enamored of international architecture. He believes the way we are going to solve the big problems of our time—including terror, including climate change—is international institutions.”
Obama, she said, believes that the U.S. response to climate change during his presidency will be one of the major tests by which he will be evaluated in decades to come.
The Clean Power Plan is the Obama administration’s crucial mechanism for reducing the emissions reduction it pledged at Paris. The legality of that plan is now being challenged in federal courts, with any decision by the court in Washington D.C. almost sure to be appealed to the Supreme Court for a final resolution. The death of Justice Antonio Scale leaves the court likely in a 4-4 deadlock—and in the case of a tie-vote, it leaves standing the status quo.
An enormous challenge
Despite the milestone of the Paris agreement, the work ahead remains daunting. Climate scientists have said we need to limit warming to about 2 degrees Celsius, and we’re well along the way to that already, with much additional heating already locked into the atmospheric system, to be manifested later.
Ratcheting down emissions to essentially zero is probably necessary, but that might not be enough, said Darrel Moellendorf, professor of international political theory at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. We may need to figure out how to remove C02 and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. “We don’t have that technology in place right now,” he said.
This points to the enormity of change that will be necessary in a short time. “We are not talking about this over centuries. We are talking about this occurring over the course of decades. We are talking about a very different world for your children and grandchildren,” he said.
Compounding the challenge is that the Earth has “phenomenal amounts of fossil fuels remaining in the ground, but if we are to get to zero emissions, those fuels must remain in the ground. There will at some point be political battles about that.”
Too, there is the issue of social equity “We know that climate change is associated with human activity, but we also know that human activity is not equally distributed,” said Idil Boran, assistant professor of philosophy at York University.
Climate change is such a difficult challenge precisely because fossil fuels have produced much good in the world and continue to produce good things, observed Light. “We are getting people out of poverty,” he said. That is why it has taken so long for the world community to reach the first significant agreement.
It’s not just the Paris accord that will be moving along changes. Light pointed to new international efforts, including the Clean Air Coalition, which focuses on methane emissions, and Climate Smart Agriculture, among efforts driving change. He also pointed to many existing bilateral agreements among countries.
Then there’s the first de facto international tax on carbon, a credit-trading scheme instituted by the European Union on all airlines that do business in Europe. The airline sector is relatively small but rapidly growing component of global greenhouse emissions. Airlines from the United States and India fought the requirement. Now that it’s in place, though, “they want one universal system that they have to deal with,” said Light.
A few words on subsidies
Contrarian perspectives were injected into the discussion occasionally by Steven Hayward, a visiting professor of conservative thought and policy at the University of Colorado. He dismissed the value of international agreements, and could cite examples of high-minded laws that had no consequence.
He also challenged the need for public policy to address the challenge of climate change. Natural gas as has done more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than renewables. “If you get new technologies, you don’t need the Paris agreement,” he said.
But how does new technology get created? Light pointed out that U.S. Department of Energy grant fostered the leap in hydraulic fracturing technology that has, in part, made abundant natural gas supplies available.
And how about those subsidies for renewables? Yes, they’ve been useful in putting some legs under the solar and wind industries. But Jesse Vogel, a consultant in the clean-tech financing sector, said the solar operators reacted to the recent extension of tax credits “with more ambivalence than you might think.”
Subsidies, in other words, are not good over the long haul. But then, the fossil fuels industries have had subsidies since World War II, Light pointed out. All industries may favor a complete elimination of subsidies.
Light said he believe it will eventually take a Republican administration to put a price on carbon. But, in response to a question, he didn’t hold out hope it will happen any time soon. Instead, he pointed to the existing geography of carbon pricing, with California’s cap-and-trade regime, the carbon taxes imposed by several provinces in Canada, and the cap-and-trade on electrical utilities in New England states. He suggested that carbon pricing will be disaggregated and from the ground up.