Kevin Rudd has pledged allegiance to the near-theological belief that climate change is 'the greatest long-term threat to us all'. He has, moreover, single-handedly transformed Hillary Clinton's 'vast right-wing conspiracy' into a climate change demon, warning darkly that his opponents are 'alive in every major country, including Australia, constitute a powerful global force for inaction, and . . . are particularly entrenched in a range of conservative parties around the world'. The Prime Minister concludes it is 'time to remove any polite veneer from this debate'. Speaking for his own conduct, he at least got the last point right.
In fact, those arguing most vociferously that climate change requires greater government regulation of the economy, higher taxation, and more 'global governance' are precisely the people who argued for these policies before global warming was even a theory. Climate change has thus become the banner under which these statists argue for precisely the same positions they argued for without any evidence of climate change. Indeed, they would likely argue for exactly the same policies even if we were confronted with global cooling (the scientific fad of the Sixties and Seventies) rather than its opposite.
Australia, at least for now, has rejected Mr Rudd's tax-and-regulate approach, and put in place a new Liberal party leader who actually supports classical liberalism. Moreover, the prospects of a legally binding global climate change agreement at Copenhagen, as long predicted, are now virtually zero. We had a foretaste of the unfolding debacle at last month's Apec meeting in Singapore, at which summit leaders said as much. Instead, UN members will only 'agree to agree' to reach a full-up treaty in 2010, thus avoiding having to admit complete failure.
In business, this kind of outcome is rarely considered to be a sign of progress. In diplomacy, by contrast, simply agreeing to meet again is often hailed as a triumph. By that measure, the Singapore announcement is a marvel to behold.
Nonetheless, drafting a 'politically binding' agreement in Copenhagen carries its own risks. Precisely because many states will see a document only politically rather than legally binding as less consequential, their guard will be down. They will be more inclined to score points with the global warming crowd by agreeing to language they would have otherwise resisted, believing they can avoid making 'legal' commitments in the 'real' treaty. Such hopes may prove delusional. Cause-oriented international NGOs, with reservoirs of patience and long memories, and their dirigiste governmental allies, often resurrect throwaway political commitments and then bludgeon the unsuspecting into making them legally binding.
So despite today's palpable sense of let-down among activists, those concerned about multilateral overreaching still have every reason to keep a close watch on Copenhagen. Nonetheless, there is real disarray among those seeking to combat what they see as anthropogenic global warming. Their projections and data are under increasing scrutiny, their economic calculations have proven unsustainable, their political judgments have been wide of the mark, and statistical tricks used by one of global warming's main academic bastions are being exposed after its computer was hacked.
There is considerable 'blame' to go around for the impending failure in Copenhagen. The US failed to pass cap-and-trade legislation, despite the (now disproven) hope that Barack Obama's election had fundamentally altered America's political landscape. China and India, speaking for many developing countries, have said unequivocally that they will not accept any global warming agreement that limits their economic growth, whatever the consequences for increased carbon emissions. And despite pledges of massive wealth transfers from north to south to compensate the developing world for the costs of limiting carbon emissions, and which many masochistic northerners are fully prepared to admit and to pay, there is no real assurance, any more than in the past, that such promised transfers will actually take place.
The south rightly suspects, once again, a lot of talk about wealth transfers, but not much action. And in developed countries, behind the posturing, hard economic realities are at issue, with competitive advantage in international markets at stake for years to come under the guise of seemingly innocuous issues of environmentalism.
A far better way to proceed, rather than simply bulling ahead as the global warming crowd normally does, is to ask whether the objections being raised perhaps reveal fundamental weaknesses in their entire strategy for dealing with climate change. The US failure to enact cap-and-trade legislation, now and in the foreseeable future, is not due to special-interest conspiracies, Kevin Rudd's paranoia notwithstanding, but to the fact that a large segment of the American public believe that the proposed policies are job killers with little chance of profoundly affecting climate change.
Similarly, India and China are simply not willing, now or for a long time to come, to downshift their economic growth to satisfy European scientific theorists. And no one, north or south, really thinks that the huge proposed resource transfers are ever actually going to happen. Increasingly, many worry justifiably about their national sovereignty, such as when new EU President Herman Van Rompuy proclaims that 'the climate conference in Copenhagen is another step toward the global management of our planet'.
Confronted with this massive political gridlock, the climate change activists would be politically best advised to find an entirely different approach. American Enterprise Institute scholars, for example, have called for 'resilience strategies' to deal with the massive uncertainties involved in both assessing the causes of climate change and the consequence of proposed remedies. These strategies do not involve the command-and-control model of Kyoto and its would-be successors, but they offer better prospects for accomplishing something worthwhile, rather than international agreements likely to be honoured more in the breach than the observance. Tony Abbott, take note.
Those professing concern for global warming should want to consider the fullest range of alternative solutions. If not, then we are at least entitled to ask if what really motivates them is less the risks of global warming and more their ceaseless efforts to increase the power and intrusiveness of government in the economic and personal affairs of our citizens. That, Mr Rudd, is really 'the greatest long-term threat to us all'.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.