On its own, President Obama’s climate action plan is far too little to curb global warming, and he knows it. But that’s not the point, Obama told reporter David Remnick in a recent interview for the New Yorker. The point is to show good faith on the issue to China and the rest of the world, and thus build cooperation for a much bigger international push.
“This is why I’m putting a big priority on our carbon action plan here,” Obama explained, when asked about what needs to be done about China’s booming greenhouse gas emissions. “It’s not because I’m ignorant of the fact that these emerging countries are going to be a bigger problem than us. It’s because it’s very hard for me to get in that conversation if we’re making no effort. And it’s not an answer for us to say, ‘Well, since the Chinese and the Indians are the bigger problem, we might as well not even bother.’”
Between China and India, Asia is now the world’s biggest carbon-emitting territory, with North America coming in second, and Europe third. But in terms of carbon dioxide emitted per person, North America still beats both by a wide margin. That’s because, as rapidly as China and India are developing, the scale of their emissions still comes primarily from the enormous size of their populations. America’s emissions result from the size of its economy and its enormous capacity to produce wealth. That the advanced western economies of Europe have such lower per capita emissions lays bare what a poor job the United States is doing when in comes to reducing the carbon intensity of how it produces that wealth.
This matters, because China and India are still trying to lift their populations out of poverty. They can’t do that without producing far more energy than they do now. The fact is fossil fuels — especially coal — remain the easy and abundant go-to option in that effort.
Last year, the Stockholm Environment Institute and other groups actually tried to quantify that wiggle room. They calculated how much of each country’s economy goes to making sure every citizen has a minimally decent standard of living, and then used the remainder as a measure of how much a country could invest and sacrifice to cut carbon emissions. India and China didn’t have much capacity left over. But the United States had an enormous amount:
That puts numbers to Obama’s point. The horizontal axis is population, the vertical axis is income level per person, and horizontal line represents the threshold beyond which a decent standard of living is secure. The green area — the portion of the graph that falls above that threshold — shows how much of the country’s economy can be devoted to fighting climate change without threatening that basic standard.
Other countries aren’t ignorant of the threat. “The most popular Twitter account in China is the U.S. Embassy’s daily air-quality measurement,” Obama pointed out. “When you talk to China experts, they will tell you that the most active, robust civic organizations, and the area where there’s been the loudest complaint about government inaction, alongside corruption, is the issue of the environment.”
But America can’t credibly ask other countries to move on global warming if it doesn’t move first. The President’s climate action plan, which aims to use the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory authority under the Clean Air Act to cut carbon emissions from America’s power plants, is the opening gambit in that bid for cooperation.
But it’s an opening gambit only. A recent paper put forward by climate scientist James Hansen and a host of others reached the bracing conclusion that even 2°C of global warming would be disastrous, and no more than 1°C should be the target. To get there, the world’s carbon emissions will have to peak within the next few years, and then start falling fast. They recommend a bilateral agreement between China and the United States in which both countries impose a carbon tax of $15 per ton, and which rises $10 per ton every year after that.
A carbon tax’s advantage is its simplicity, which would make it easy to replicate from country to country. To encourage other nations to get on board, they recommend imposing border duties on imports from any country without a carbon tax.
Climate change, especially on the international level, is the mother of all collective action problems. Any person or country who moves to cut their emissions individually will bear the economic brunt of those cuts, but everyone benefits from the reductions whether they bother to cut their own or not. That’s a giant invitation to free-ride. That can be solved at the national level with comprehensive regulations like EPA’s, or something like a carbon tax. But there’s no world government to pass equivalent rules at the international level.
That means any theory of how to fight climate change has to be, first and foremost, a theory of how to get countries to voluntarily cooperate. President Obama has a theory, and it’s really as simple and straightforward as it gets: if you want others to sacrifice for the good of all, you have to first make that sacrifice yourself.
HT: National Journal