The debate over whether climate change is real is over. Now the question is if it can be stopped. At the Nixon Center on Wednesday, four panelists discussed the prospects for doing just that. All agreed that it's an extremely difficult, if not impossible task-and that international cooperation will be the key to any successful effort.
Lew Watts, president and CEO of PFC Energy, an industry consulting firm, served as moderator and spoke first. He posed key questions: Will developing countries reduce carbon emissions? Will the next American president muster the political will to cut emissions? What effect do high oil prices have on the problem? And finally, is it already "too late" to do something about climate change?
Watts was followed by Raymond J. Kopp, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, who examined the economic implications of combating climate change. He said that a bill in the Senate capping harmful emissions, cosponsored by Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and John Warner (R-VA), was politically untenable: the measure would most likely lead to a 1 percent GDP cut, which sounds small and politically palatable. But, this reduction in GDP would not be spread evenly throughout the economy, rather it would damage "very particular sectors" of the economy-especially the steel, aluminum, cement and chemical industries.
Next to speak was Vaughan Turekian, Chief International Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He emphasized that climate change was "inherently a global issue" in its impacts, causes and "ultimately the solutions." This complicates the matter: different countries have vastly distinct outlooks on the problem. For example, while Western Europe is solidly behind a cap-and-trade system, rapidly developing states like China and India are more concerned with poverty alleviation. Canada and Russia are dependent upon the use and production of fossil fuels-and may not want to phase them out. And of course, the United States still hasn't taken any meaningful steps. Turekian also raised an "inconvenient truth" of his own: it's now impossible to totally halt the effects of climate change, so countries should start "adapting" to that reality via common-sense measures like moving development away from shorelines.
The focus then shifted as Juliet Eilperin, a reporter at the Washington Post, looked at the role of climate change in the 2008 presidential race. While pointing out that all three candidates are committed to a federal limit on greenhouse gases, she reminded those in attendance of the "devil in the details": cutting emissions, whether through a gas tax or a cap-and-trade system, will mean stiff costs for Americans. Will politicians really make "tough choices" that raise the cost of living for average citizens? They haven't even come close so far, Eilperin said. Most are searching for a silver bullet that will allow them to avoid political pain; many members of Congress refuse to face up to the fact that ethanol and "clean coal" hold little promise.
In his concluding remarks, Watts counseled against expecting technological solutions to "come to the rescue." He listed obstacles to an energy breakthrough: paltry research-and-development budgets and the reluctance of oil companies to share intellectual property and adopt new methods. Instead, Watts advocated measures to curb demand for fossil fuels before climate change gets out of hand. Still, he said, the problem is so "enormous" that an "incremental solution" won't work. He closed by underscoring the importance of Beijing to solving the climate problem: "Nothing will be done if China doesn't move." But by that metric, the prospects for a solution look dim: to keep up with surging demand, the regime is building one gigawatt's worth of coal-fired plants each week.
Andrew E. Title is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.