Tuesday, October 30, 2012


A Climate Deal with China?

I voted this week. How about you? It is a satisfying act, especially during a Presidential year. No, I'm not as excited as I was last time. It was particularly sweet in 2008 to watch the returns with my mother, living out her life in a Republican (owner and inmates) extended care facility in Pennsylvania. She was so proud of her native North Carolina helping to deliver “my President.” My mother has passed, and we are the end of a campaign without any serious issue other than the economy. No matter who wins this time, we in the climate movement know that our work redoubles with the new administration, for this is effectively the last time we get four more years (see my August post). If we don't seriously deter carbon emissions by 2016, the CO2 momentum will be unstoppable.

In a letter to the editor a few weeks ago, I said it was not such a bad thing that the fairly weak cap-and-trade bill that passed the US House in 2009 failed in the Senate. If things had gone otherwise, we might have congratulated ourselves and become prematurely complacent. Cap-and-trade failed in Europe and Japan because the system was subject to gaming and manipulation. What we need is a carbon tax, which international leaders from both left and right have tried to enact. A carbon tax is fairer and much harder to cheat, the main issue being pricing carbon high enough to put a brake on CO2 emissions, encouraging rapid development of alternative energy sources. Senator Maria Cantwell's CLEAR act was a brave, though flawed start.

On the eve of the 2012 election, it is almost absurd to be discussing the possibility of government being able to do anything about the impending climate doom I outlined in the last two posts. Though dissatisfaction with Congress is at record levels, pundits predict the GOP will retain its hold on the House, while the Democrats are likely to barely hold onto the Senate, an essentially frozen institution shackled by its own bizarre rules. So even if the candidate who has most consistently aligned himself with science in the past wins, the chances of getting something done through the legislature is close to zero. Perhaps our nation's approach to international climate action needs to shift.

Looking at the failure of international negotiations to slow down climate change, MIT policy wonk David Victor argues in Global Warming Gridlock for a new strategy, a series of bilateral agreements among countries with similar goals and interests. Immediately, I thought of the US and China, who together produce over 50% of the world's emissions. We are also huge trading partners. A bilateral agreement with China, preposterous as it seems, could turn nationalist competition into global climate security. Like the Russians with their space program in 1960, China is ahead in the Green Revolution, giving it more resources by far than any other country (though admittedly they are still challenged by the growth of their grid, still mostly fueled by coal). Such a priority shift in a somewhat frosty relationship could definitely dampen global warming in one huge blow. And of course there are other parties highly motivated to work against climate change, including the large economies who were signatories to the Kyoto Accord. With a new international accord proving unlikely, bilateral treaties modeled on trade accords could work with a carbon tax to achieve goals in CO2 reduction. The favored model is tax and distribute, and the distribution just might be tailored to offset the huge inequalities in historical carbon production.

Sure, this is a tall order, but the US diplomatic corps is large, with some very talented people. China is ramping up its diplomats, and its climate scientists have the ear of the regime. The biggest obstacle remains massive denial here in the US fueled by a calculated attempt by think tanks and ad agencies funded by Big Carbon. The PBS program Frontline recently aired a report on the key players in this process. The alarming shift in public opinion is hugely abetted by the Republican Party, which is fast cleansing itself of those who have the courage to go on on record that anthropogenic climate change is for real. We need to undo the right wing assault on climate science and the coalition of the Tea Party with the Christian Right.

Secular environmentalists and liberal Christians need to form bonds with more conservative Christians to elevate ecojustice to its fundamental position as a Christian witness. West Coast evangelicals include a significant, vocal minority of young folks who are putting their bodies on the line, tree-huggers for Christ. A large number of citizens signed a petition to Jim Lehrer to ask a climate change question in the first debate. At the second, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action met in silent prayer under banners to awaken the campaign to the enormous centrality of climate change. Their mentor, Richard Cizik, though thrown out of the National Association of Evangelicals for supporting committed gay relationships, continues to fire up steady crowds who come to hear his prophetic climate action message.

And of course we need political leadership. A first-term President Obama made the fateful choice to prioritize health care. After that protracted, draining battle, the 2010 elections ended his window of opportunity for major legislative initiatives. A second-term Obama would not have to work for re-election, leading hopeful liberals and progressives to dream that he might bust out of his prison. Thus far he hasn't shown that kind of leadership, consistently being a pragmatic deal-maker. But a climate deal with China, though initially radical, would require a lot of the lawyerly deal-making that he finds natural.

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