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So Far, So Good on the Climate Change Negotiations

The Obama Administration is exceeding our expectations at Copenhagen. Todd Stern, our chief negotiator has adroitly thrown cold water on developing county blackmail while our delegation makes the joyous noise with environmentalist. It has been an excellent balance of realism and hype that might actually lead to a workable agreement instead of the usual crap that comes out of these big convocations. So far, so good, let’s keep it up.

Calling their bluffs

Stern has called the climate community’s bluff, as we hoped he would. No more can plaintive voiced people get away with just saying how bad we are, how terrible things might get and – with a tears in their eyes – say that it would all be just great if only the U.S. would do the right thing. Stern pointed out that 97% of the new emissions will come from developing nations. Unless they step up, nothing will work. A little tough love was what they needed and what they are getting. One of our most potent tools is the resort to higher authority. This is something you learn in negotiations 101, but most people hate to use it. It does our egos a lot of good if we can say that we are the final decision makers, but it is a very bad negotiating position. It allows you to get rolled and/or carried away by the tide of events. This is what evidently happened at Kyoto. Otherwise it is hard to explain how our negotiators agreed to such a monumentally stupid agreement.

The negotiator proposes; the Senate disposes

How does the resort to higher authority work in this case? Our negotiators know and they have let other know that no matter what kind of agreement they reach at international venues, the U.S. Senate will have something to say about it when all the dealing is done. If the agreement is too absurd, the Senate will reject it, as the unanimous Senate did with Kyoto. This is a powerful incentive for everyone to be reasonable and not allow the exhilaration of the moment overpower the longer term realities.

Good guys and bad guys

There is another negotiation tactic that it seems that the Obama administration is using. That is the one we all recognize from watching cop shows – good guy/bad guy or good cop/bad cop. It is closely related to the higher authority gambit in that President Obama gets to be the good guy while the vaguely identified opposition plays the villain role. The incentive is to give something to the good guy so as to avoid rewarding or even having to deal with the bad guy. George Bush could never have pulled this off. He would have been undercut by the U.S. environmental community and, anyway, he didn’t have the persona to pull it off. Obama can. We all hope that he can swoop in at the end and scoop up some of the marbles that we otherwise would have lost.

America holds a strong hand this time

Addressing climate change is a big job and it will cost trillions of dollars. We agree on the goal, but there are ways to do it that are more and less effective; more or less costly and more or less costly particularly to the U.S. That is what these negotiations are about. And this is something that those most loudly braying about the need to “save the planet” are often trying to obscure.

U.S. CO2 emissions relative to the rest of the world have been dropping for a long time. The blame America idea is just a non-starter. America is a big part of any solution, but if others, especially developing countries, don’t step up the problem cannot be solved.

Beyond that, everybody knows that the U.S. can more easily adapt to climate change than many others. Another bluff that many developing countries are running goes something like "give us money or we will drown ourselves." That is another bluff we can call.

America has more advantages this time than ever before. We should be fair but also tough. We cannot afford free riders. As we wrote elsewhere, the U.S. is now in a better position in relation to many others. We can plausibly promise real reduction in CO2 emissions, but it is very important how we sell reductions. You don’t give things away in negotiations because you get no credit in the international community if you just do the right thing w/o making a big deal about it. Multilateral negotiations are a kind of kabuki play. You have to scream and grimace at the proper times or else nobody pays attention. You have to call attention and claim credit for good things that just happen. You know that you will be blamed for the bad things.

Climate change talks should be about … climate change

We have to insist that the climate change programs remain about climate change. They cannot be sidetracked into a general push for development aid or some kinds of transfer payments from the rich countries to the poor ones. Many national leaders and NGOs come to climate change talks with the hope of hijacking them precisely in this direction. The threat of climate change has given them a potent weapon, which they are not eager to relinquish. That is why they often reject sensible solutions such as nuclear power or want to concentrate all their efforts on the developed world industries.

Physics doesn’t distinguish among emissions

So let’s keep on task. The job is to mitigate climate change and adapt to what we cannot mitigate. This is a practical problem involving lots of physics and physical infrastructure. The Chinese Ambassador disingenuously called for soul searching when talking about climate. If he can find a place to sequester carbon there, let him search his own soul. Otherwise the world’s biggest emitter of CO2 might just want to do something practical.

You have to be willing to walk away

Finally, the most powerful tool of negotiators is the ability to walk away from a bad deal. Developed countries like the U.S. accounted for most of the historical emissions, but they emit less than half of the GHG today and this percentage will drop now and forever. If current trends continue, China alone will emit more CO2 in the next thirty years than the U.S. did since 1776. China's emissions alone more than swamps any “historical damage” done by us.

Nevertheless, many big and future developing polluters have a big incentive to play the victims. We already hear the silly rhetoric and attempts to guilt us into doing something stupid. (The Sudanese, you recall the guys who brought us the genocide in Darfur, had the guts to ask us to remember the children. Well, we do.) We should not let the idea that we MUST make a deal stand in the way of making a good deal. If many in the developing world have their way, we will send a lot of money with few or no strings attached to countries that historically have not managed their finances well. They will talk a lot about reducing CO2, but not do very much about it. In fact, the big buck infusion will enable them to pollute even more. This deal is worse than no deal and everybody has to understand that we will walk away than accept it.

Climate change is an urgent problem and we need to find solutions. But rushing to do the WRONG thing will just make the whole thing worse. It is like the dishonest salesman who wants you to sign w/o reading the agreement. He tells you that if you don’t act right now, it will be too late. The deal will disappear. It is usually better to let a deal like that disappear. But the funny thing about negations is that if they know you are willing to walk away, the other side usually gets a lot more reasonable. The ABILITY to walk away usually means you don’t have to. The world will get a more effective climate deal if the U.S. is tough and realistic. Let's not let another Kyoto mess things up for another decade.

Below are some sources you might want to consult on the climate debate.



Economist Special Report on the Carbon Economy

Nature Conservancy

Pew Climate Change Center

WSJ on Climate Debate


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