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Warming to Climate Change

Warming to Climate Change

Mini Teaser: Kyoto is upside down; America needs a sensible energy policy to fight global warming.

by Author(s): Paul J. SaundersVaughan C. Turekian

 
A VITAL challenge for all G-8 members in varying ways, energy is an essential agenda item at the group's July 15-17 summit in St. Petersburg. This year's focus on energy security--coinciding with Russia's 2006 G-8 presidency--is not accidental. Faced with increasing questions about its conduct in the United States and Europe, Moscow correctly understands that its vast energy resources are its principal claim to membership in a group where some prominent American politicians--notably Senator John McCain (R-AZ)--no longer welcome Russian participation. In the eyes of many, energy is one of relatively few areas where the Kremlin can bring something positive to the table. (Of course, after the Russian government's poor handling of a price dispute with Ukraine at the beginning of the year, leading to disruptions of Russian gas supplies to Western Europe, not everyone would agree.)

It seems, however, that few G-8 members will likely be inclined at this summit to try again to engage Washington on U.S. international climate policy, given the failure last year of British Prime Minister Tony Blair in leveraging the political capital he thought he had amassed vis-a-vis the United States to convince President Bush to sign on to one of his signature issues. But a lack of continued focus on climate at the G-8 would be a mistake: It is inextricably linked to any discussion of energy security and should be a key consideration in energy policy decisions.

After all, the increasing global demand for energy--coupled with skyrocketing prices--has an obvious major impact on economic growth. Instability (of different types) in key energy producing regions plays a significant role in shaping important foreign policy decisions. Through the creation of greenhouse gases that trap heat in the Earth's lower atmosphere rather than allowing it to radiate into space, the production and consumption of energy also has a profound impact on the global climate, which may in turn substantially affect economies and lives.

And sooner than many think, Washington may be prepared to adopt a more pragmatic--and more constructive--set of domestic and international policies on climate change. The policies the United States will likely consider would almost certainly disappoint die-hard climate activists--and indeed anyone who pins hope on the Kyoto Protocol's target-and-timetable model of greenhouse-gas reduction-but they could ultimately make a very substantial contribution to addressing climate change.

THUS FAR, the Bush Administration has rejected the Kyoto approach of negotiated limits on greenhouse gas emissions on the basis that there is considerable scientific uncertainty about the precise impact of human activity and the effects of particular concentrations of the gases in the atmosphere. As a result, the administration argues, Kyoto-style limits impose steep economic costs without necessarily affecting further climate change. Instead, the administration contends that new low- or zero-emission energy technologies are necessary to arrest and reverse the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and emphasizes its investments in research on technologies like clean coal, fuel cells, a next-generation nuclear reactor and fusion power.

Broadly speaking, there is considerable truth to both points. There is indeed uncertainty about exactly what concentration of greenhouse gases is dangerous and about how much climate variation is a result of human rather than natural processes. There is also uncertainty about how the Earth's climate system will react to higher levels of greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, there is sufficient scientific knowledge to demonstrate that human activity contributes to the problem--something the Bush Administration now acknowledges--and that a policy response is necessary.

The administration is likewise correct that it will take decades or longer to execute a strategy to deal with the issue of global warming in a meaningful way. Most greenhouse gases are produced by the power and transport sectors, and even if cost-effective new technologies were available now, turning over the stock of power plants (with life cycles measured in decades) and automobiles will take quite some time, while any burden associated with carbon dioxide already in the air cannot be attenuated rapidly.

The Kyoto approach has other problems as well. Though the protocol has been in force since only early 2006--due to Russian ratification in late 2005--several key signatories, including European governments and Japan, decided early on to adhere to Kyoto's targets, whether or not the treaty ultimately came into effect. Despite this effort, which has been particularly heroic in Japan's case, most Kyoto parties are unlikely to satisfy their obligations. Those that do seem likely to, such as Germany and Britain, will benefit substantially from structural consequences of unrelated policy decisions in reaching these goals. (In the German case, it was reunification, which resulted in the closure of dirty and dilapidated plants in the former East; in the UK, it was Margaret Thatcher's privatization of coal. For reasons similar to Germany but more pronounced due to its severe economic collapse after 1991, Russia is likely to meet its 2012 target with no particular effort. In fact, other Kyoto parties will likely be forced to buy surplus emission credits from Moscow to meet their own targets.)

More significantly in the long run, the Kyoto parties were unable at their 2006 meeting to persuade developing countries to join a post-2012 commitment period, meaning that China, India and other developing countries with soaring emissions are under no obligations. Thus, even if Kyoto succeeds fully with current goals--and succeeds in meeting much tougher targets during any post-2012 commitment period--it is unlikely to make a real difference.

Kyoto also fails because it does not meet the "90-10 test", which we see as an essential basis for evaluating policy decisions under conditions of scientific uncertainty. Simply put, because we do not yet know the relative importance of human activity in shaping the global climate, policies should make sense whether that activity is responsible for 90 percent or 10 percent of the observed (and future) warming. The Kyoto approach is too costly if human activity is only 10 percent of the problem and far too weak if it is 90 percent.

Ultimately, any effort to address climate change comes up against an inherent problem: Multilateral cooperation to stabilize and reduce concentrations of greenhouse gases through negotiated limits is very unattractive to many governments. Absent new technologies, it cannot but limit economic growth. Thus the Kyoto Protocol is the opposite of an international regime like the World Trade Organization: The costs are high with limited offsetting gains, the benefits are hard to describe, and no matter how many countries sign up, large emitters outside the treaty feel no greater attraction.

IN A MORE fundamental sense, as demonstrated in the American case, the target-and-timetable approach is politically flawed. First, because developing countries were not included, it could not have won Senate ratification (something the Clinton Administration disingenuously refused to acknowledge but surely recognized since it never sent Kyoto to the Senate after signing it). More broadly, because of its enormous economic implications, energy policy--which drives climate policy--is far too sensitive politically for most democratic systems to delegate decisions to international negotiating processes. Thus, while the European Union has a common policy on climate change, it has been unable to develop a common energy policy.

Trying to make energy policy via climate policy is doomed to fail. The key to a pragmatic, and successful, policy approach to climate change is to turn it around and make sensible energy policy in which climate implications are a major consideration. The United States and others already face considerable pressure to do this: As former Energy Secretary James Schlesinger wrote in the Winter 2005/06 issue of The National Interest, oil production is likely to peak in twenty to thirty years, with substantial economic implications. The longer we wait to address the end of oil, the more difficult and expensive it will be. Oil is not the only problem. Growing global demand for electricity requires a major coordinated international response regarding all ways of meeting energy needs.

What has the Bush Administration done? More than most people think--but not enough. Since 2001 the administration has invested nearly $20 billion in climate-change science and new energy technologies through multilateral efforts such as the International Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy, the Carbon Sequestration Leadership forum, the Gen IV nuclear partnership, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor and the Methane to Markets Partnership. Last year's Energy Policy Act provides $11 billion in incentives for wind, geothermal and solar power, clean vehicles, clean coal technology, emissions-free nuclear power, and renewable bio-fuels. Given that China, India and even the United States will continue to rely heavily on coal as an abundant and inexpensive source of energy, this focus on technology is essential to any effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Still, the Bush Administration could go well beyond this--and could contribute to rebuilding American global leadership in the process. In a sense, the administration need only do what it should have done five years ago in announcing that the United States would withdraw from the Kyoto process: define a clear and convincing alternative to the Kyoto approach.

IT IS VERY difficult to argue that administration-initiated international partnerships on hydrogen, nuclear fusion, carbon sequestration and advanced nuclear-reactor technologies will dramatically alter the way the world produces and consumes energy. At present, these technologies seem to offer the best--if not the only--hope for achieving any meaningful cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Yet given the revolutionary potential of these programs, it is perplexing that the administration has not provided a long-term vision and strategy for mitigating global warming, in terms fitting the magnitude of the challenge with an appropriate level of commitment. Is it so difficult to articulate a policy based on pursuing an energy revolution that has as a long-term goal a zero-emissions economy by the end of the century? If this is not the ultimate goal, then why spend billions of dollars annually to develop such technologies? The answer, of course, is that the lack of a visionary goal reflects the White House's deep-seated reluctance to concede the potential seriousness of the global warming problem or the role that energy consumption might have in contributing to it.

This attitude reflects the politics of the climate-change debate. For some, any policy short of drastic (and economically catastrophic) near-term reductions in emissions is evidence that the administration is seeking to avoid the issue. Members of this group ignore the essential part that energy plays in American economic growth and the fact that access to energy is a cornerstone of sustainable development globally. They also ignore the fact that had previous administrations taken a similar long-term view and made a commitment to developing energy technologies, we would be in a much better position today to bring these technologies to bear on the problem.

On the other side of the debate are those who believe that any admission of human impact on the climate will necessarily lead to economically damaging policies. Those in this group seem to believe that such an acknowledgement purposelessly opens the door of litigation and legislation to opponents who value environmental protection above economic growth. These two vocal groups are unwilling (or unable) to move from these extremes--and they are important constituencies for Republicans and Democrats.

Facing this landscape, the president and his political advisors have chosen a strategy that minimizes the near-term threat from climate change and focuses on long-term investments. The result is a perception that the administration does not take the threat seriously and is essentially trying to run out the clock.

Yet there can be little doubt that pressure will continue to mount on the Bush Administration, and its sucessor, to articulate a vision for addressing climate change in an effective and sustainable manner. While the drumbeat of doom about global warming in America's popular media seriously oversimplifies the complex science of our climate, it is having an impact on how politicians must deal with this challenge, as demonstrated in a recent Time magazine poll. Correctly or not, devastating weather events such as Hurricane Katrina reinforce public perceptions that global warming is already producing catastrophic consequences. Concerns about over-reliance on the Middle East and the question "What Would Jesus Drive?" similarly shape the opinions of important segments of American society.

Several prominent senators have entered this vision vacuum by proposing a range of energy and climate legislation--including a bill from Senator McCain and Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) that would impose targets and timetables while also providing tax incentives for reduced emissions, and a failed amendment from Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) to Senator Pete Domenici's (R-NM) ultimately successful energy bill--that would have endorsed the approach outlined by the 2004 National Commission on Energy Policy. Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) is sponsoring or cosponsoring multiple bills designed to promote the use of alternative fuels and increase international cooperation on energy issues--topics he addresses in his contribution to this issue of The National Interest. Last year's Energy Policy Act included the Hagel-Pryor Amendment, which called for focused efforts by the United States to work to decrease greenhouse gas intensity (the quantity of emissions per unit of gross domestic product).

While these many responses are constructive, and contribute to an important national debate whether or not they become law, they are unlikely to succeed without being integrated into a comprehensive national policy--something the executive branch of the federal government is best equipped to formulate, though close consultation with Congress would be essential to its success. Leadership by the executive is particularly important in defining the relationship between the domestic and international components of U.S. policy and developing an international strategy to advance them. Also, given growing congressional interest, the changing politics of the issue, and the looming elections in 2006 and 2008, more and more bills are likely--something that should encourage any administration to lead rather than follow. If the Republican Party loses control of the House of Representatives or the Senate this fall, this pressure could grow further.

The international arena will also keep energy and climate issues high on the agenda. Instability in Iraq is likely to continue, and U.S. relations with key oil producers such as Iran, Russia and Venezuela will be tense. (In the case of Iran, "tense" may become a significant understatement.) China will likely continue efforts to establish long-term energy-supply arrangements in the Middle East and elsewhere, something that has also provoked considerable concern on Capitol Hill. America's closest allies, especially in Europe and Japan, will be increasingly focused on climate and energy, too. Next year, Germany will hold the presidency of both the G-8 and the European Union--and is quite likely to use the opportunity to press for more action on climate change.

Rather than sparring with close allies in an area where we have real common interests, the administration should seize this chance to work with American partners and respond to their concerns by engaging them with serious and significant proposals. It was wholly unnecessary for the Bush Administration to reject Kyoto so publicly and definitively; the administration both significantly damaged relations with Europe and Japan and laid the groundwork for criticism of U.S. "unilateralism" that has become commonplace since. The administration's simultaneous unwillingness to define an alternative approach added to the costs by making the United States look dismissive. Because these perceptions have been allowed to take hold and even to grow for five years, the diplomatic task of building support for an alternative may be considerably more difficult than it could have been. But because Kyoto is even less likely today to make a meaningful contribution to solving the climate problem than when it was negotiated, that task is increasingly important.


The Bush Administration could continue to play defense and defer action beyond 2008. But it is in the best interest of the United States that President Bush take action now, to use the final years of his administration to show determined leadership on energy and climate change--issues with enormous long-term consequences for American prosperity and well-being--and to go on the offensive both at home and abroad.

The administration could try for a fresh start domestically by holding a White House conference on energy security and climate change. If organized seriously-and not overtly stage-managed like some previous conferences--such an event could begin the process of developing a new national consensus on these intimately interconnected and controversial issues. This meeting would be similar to the "White House Conference on the Economy" that Mr. Bush hosted in December 2004, though more inclusive of those with differing perspectives. After an open discussion with leading climate scientists, heads of major energy-producing and energy-consuming companies, governors, members of Congress, nongovernmental organizations, and visionaries such as Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, the president would be better positioned to call on all segments of society to address this complex, multifaceted challenge. Such a gathering would be an ideal time to set the goal of a zero-emission economy by century's end. That goal could in turn serve as the foundation for a diplomatic offensive.

President Bush has shown this kind of leadership domestically and internationally on another global issue, pandemic influenza. In meetings with world leaders, the president has stressed the serious risk posed by the flu--even though the science of a pandemic is not definitive--and prodded his counterparts to take serious action. His administration has also developed serious and detailed domestic plans. In short, Mr. Bush has listened to scientists, weighed the value of different measures, and made the practical choice that the risk is too great not to take preemptive action.

While the administration will face a greater public diplomacy battle to seize international leadership on energy and climate change, the same logic prevails. If the president of the United States advocates an aggressive yet prudent policy, he can have a major impact. Notwithstanding the understandable focus on the Kyoto Protocol, especially now that it is in force, there is little doubt that many governments continue to look to the United States for leadership in developing a global approach to addressing climate change. A pragmatic U.S. approach to this challenge would have a good chance of becoming the global standard. Such an approach should neither mimic Kyoto's strict target-and-timetable approach, nor undermine its efforts (at least so long as they endure), which may provide some useful experience.

Some have suggested working to address climate change through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), originally negotiated in 1992 by the first President Bush. This approach is unlikely to succeed, however, as a negotiating framework that brings in nearly 190 countries is inherently unwieldy, and a process dominated by narrowly focused environment ministries often fails to take broader priorities into account. Still, the UNFCCC has been a useful forum to discuss global approaches to addressing climate change, and it would be politically and practically unwise to withdraw, despite the often zoo-like, coercive and divisive atmosphere of its annual Conference of the Parties. That said, the administration is correct to resist attempts to open negotiations within the convention and to continue instead to use it as a forum for sharing information and exchanging best practices, in much the same way as the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. As real action on climate change continues to move away from the UNFCCC process, there is some logic in reducing the political level of the annual meetings, or having ministerial sessions on an intermittent basis.

Of potentially greater utility as the basis for an effective alternative to Kyoto is the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, a U.S.-initiated effort that includes Australia, China, India, Korea and Japan. This approach focuses on encouraging public and private investment in deploying available energy efficiency technologies now and developing cutting-edge energy technologies for the future. Importantly, it complements rather than undermines Kyoto, which allows the United States to build support without confronting those determined to adhere to the protocol. Also, by focusing in part on currently available technologies for energy efficiency, it can produce some results in a politically meaningful time frame.

A new global framework to chart the steps toward zero-emissions technologies would likewise make a useful contribution and could be a useful vehicle to enhance cooperation with key American allies, including Europe and Japan. The United States has already established or contributed significantly to a variety of multilateral initiatives that could be consolidated and expanded to develop a cohesive group of technology partnerships aimed at the transition to a zero-emissions economy. This could be built on the foundation of the Asia-Pacific Partnership--which already includes a number of the world's largest economies and greenhouse gas emitters--and would logically be expanded first to include European governments and the European Union. Japan and several European countries are already leaders in some low-emission technologies.

No single approach or technology can address the challenges of sustaining and expanding global access to energy and economic growth while mitigating greenhouse-gas emissions; and even with determined effort by the United States and others, the process will be a long one. Yet sensible action--undertaken with a recognition that the central political questions must be resolved for the most part domestically rather than internationally, despite the global nature of the problems--can make a difference. Even more important, failing to act not only weakens American leadership but risks terrible costs to our economy and society.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Nixon Center and associate publisher of The National Interest. Vaughan C. Turekian is chief international officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science and holds a Ph.D. in atmospheric geochemistry.

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