Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Nisbet Report: Climate Shift (Take II)

Here's an update on the earlier discussion of Nisbet's ClimateShift report.

Bradford Plummer over at the New Republic has a thoughtful review of the Nisbet Report, Blame Game: Has the green movement been a miserable flop? The article does a good job of both describing the niche controversies surrounding the report while at the same time maintaining focus on the larger issues that the report raises; specifically whether or not the emphasis on public education is a sensible strategy for getting the US to adopt climate change legislation. Unfortunately, in an attempt to end on an up note, the article goes seriously off track in the last paragraph.
Last month, I asked David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council whether the green movement needed to rethink its broader strategy. .... Hawkins, who has worked on air-pollution issues for four decades now, preferred to take the long view. “I’m a political optimist,” he said. “Over the last forty years, we really have seen significant environmental progress. There are always setbacks—we’ve weathered unfriendly political climates during the Reagan and Bush years, and we’ve protected the EPA’s authority. But, eventually, we'd win. The air would get cleaner, lives would be saved, and things continue to get better.” It's not the sort of conclusion that's going to grab headlines. But that doesn't mean he's wrong.

Hawkins is arguably right --- as long as you focus on environmental matters that can be addressed at the level of the nation-state or below. But climate change is of a different scale, requiring coordinated effort among all the countries of the world. This is where the navel-gazing fetish of America gets them in trouble. There are two big behemoths that have to be placated in any feasible solution to climate change: the US and China. The notion that internal political pressure will, at this point, get the US to move without some sort of tandem move by China is pure fantasy. I've addressed this issue in greater depth here and here.

Unfortunately, the track record of international cooperation on such a scale is not something that generates a lot of optimism. The only structure remotely similar to what will be needed -- that is an essentially global agreement with a legally binding enforcement mechanism -- are the trade agreements of the World Trade Organization. But ever since about 2000, when the developing world woke up to the fact that they were having the wool pulled over their eyes by the wealthy economies, further development of such agreements has ground to a halt. Stated another way, the WTO experience has seriously lessened the likelihood of getting international cooperation on a similar scale for another issue like climate change.

Yes, some will point to the Montreal Protocol and its success in taming the ozone problem and argue, as they have done for years, that it's cap-and-trade model provides a viable way to address the climate issue. While superficially attractive, this suggestion fails to account for three major differences. First, the ozone problem was, comparatively, a simple matter. Climate change is a wicked problem with many more complexities and uncertainties. Second, once they discovered an alternative for CFC's, the chemical industry was full scale in favor of the Montreal Protocol because they saw a clear path to increased profits. This is not the case with climate change where much of the fossil fuel industry remains resolutely opposed to effective climate change policy. Third, CFC's were a comparatively minor economic product and, hence, no one perceived a ban on CFC's as a fundamental attack on capitalism. In contrast, fossil fuels are a key source of the energy which drives the modern economy and which cannot easily and cheaply be replaced with another source. As such, the argument that weaning an economy off fossil fuels will necessitate a fundamental restructuring of the economy is not at all far fetched. Thus, climate change legislation is easily tied to concerns about the future of capitalism or the American way of life, a political burden that the Montreal Protocol never had to carry.

I'm all for optimism. But I prefer to take mine with a dash of realism thrown in.

P.S. A couple days after I posted this Robert Pielke Jr's posted on the ozone issue, fleshing out several of the above points with additional details.

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