Stephen Krasner has written that "organized hypocrisy" is common practice in world politics. He means states often paper over conflicts with sham accords while each continues to pursue its own interests.
Thus, 187 nations have signed the Kyoto Protocol, resoundingly declaring the signatories' resolve to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Most of them are exempt from emission controls, and the ones that are not have acted largely as they would have had no agreement been reached. Global emissions of carbon dioxide have continued to grow.
The United Nations Conference of Parties in Copenhagen will follow this pattern. While all countries proclaim a wish to lower GHG emissions, developing countries refuse to pay the requisite costs to do so. Most developed countries also are reluctant to incur GHG control costs, and they clearly are unwilling to pay the very large costs required for China and India to significantly restrain their fast-growing emissions. Yet without tight global emission limits, atmospheric levels of GHGs will continue to rise.
In recent weeks, leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit endorsed a scaled-back climate strategy. President Obama and congressional leaders continue to speak as if an effective agreement is possible and further U.S. concessions are key to achieving it. These claims make no sense.
China and India insist that the developed world must pay them to reduce emissions. However, for the United States alone, fully compensating the developing countries for the cost of controls would entail annual income transfers of $200 billion by 2020 and of nearly $1 trillion by 2050.
Yet the United States, as a developed country with a temperate climate, has less to fear from climate change than do most other nations. Therefore, it has less to gain from an accord. Why, then, should the United States consent to pay other countries to make emission cuts that are more valuable to much of the rest of the world than they are to America?
The goal pursued by an agreement's supporters has little to do with saving the world from climate change. Given the stance of China and India, no emission-control accord will have much effect on climate. It has a lot to do with enacting U.S. GHG controls. A powerful business coalition supports such controls.
While controls will slow the growth of the U.S. economy as a whole, some firms will gain from them--mostly because emission caps will raise their competitors' prices more than their own.
Then too, emission traders hope to profit from the expected large swings in emission-permit prices and to find investors in complex schemes packaging risky financial products. Also, environmental groups have promised their funders that they will enact U.S. GHG curbs--not that the controls will solve climate change or yield net benefits to America.
To have any chance of enacting domestic GHG controls, the Obama administration must somehow produce the appearance of emission reductions from China and India. Real emission cuts from these countries carry too high a price tag, but the appearance of cuts might be another matter.
The outlines of such an agreement are already visible. Third World governments will announce "no regrets" policies--policies that they might adopt absent concerns about climate change. Such policies will not have much impact on emissions, but the proponents of GHG controls will not inquire too deeply on that point. Thus, China and India will pretend to curtail their emissions, and the supporters of U.S. emission curbs will pretend to believe that they are doing so.
This arrangement will impose potentially high costs on U.S. consumers while doing almost nothing to halt climate change. Realistic talks on climate change must start with the facts that emission cuts yield net benefits only if they start small and become gradually larger, that new technologies must be developed to make deep future cuts feasible and that emission limits are not the only way to prevent harm from climate change.
Negotiations should allow countries to make and exchange pledges to take a wide variety of actions. Some countries might still wish to offer caps. Others might pledge energy research and development spending, sectoral emission caps, money to help poorer countries cope with warming, or more funding for climate science. Some might even explore new technologies that could lower temperatures despite rising GHG levels.
Such talks, it must be admitted, would not produce dramatically lower emissions even in the medium term, but then again, neither will any other form of negotiation. Setting a more realistic basis for climate talks would, though, require nations to forgo the comforts of organized hypocrisy. So far, the Obama administration seems unwilling to pay this price.
Lee Lane is a resident fellow and codirector of the Geoengineering Project at AEI. W. David Montgomery is an internationally recognized expert on economic issues associated with climate change policy and a consultant at Charles River Associates.