On the futility of global climate accords
The quiet track the Biden Administration is pursuing is a lot more promising.
From Claire—Owing to the number and quality of submissions we’ve received, Energy Week will run through the weekend and well into midweek next week. To make things more dynamic, we plan do two things.
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By Adam Garfinkle
The climate summit racket
Yanking the United States out of a global climate accord was no Trumpean innovation. In 2001, George W. Bush pulled the United States out of the unratified and un-ratifiable 1997 Kyoto Accords Bill Clinton had signed. This induced hysteria in the global warming chorus. Sending that chorus into a second round of apoplexy probably ranked high among the Trump Administration’s motives, for Trump’s base detested anything the chorus liked with a vigor unaltered by facts or consequences.
Four years after Bush tanked Kyoto, Barack Obama rushed into the void to negotiate the Paris Agreement, but failed to submit it to Congress for ratification, knowing it would be rejected. The United States adhered by executive signature alone, leading to doubts about the US government’s ability to commit to the long haul, especially if that commitment entailed spending money, which is Congress’s prerogative. Those doubts are well-founded.
So while supporters in the US and abroad have hailed Joe Biden’s grand return to international climate negotiations—part of the vaunted “the US is back” theme—there’s a good deal less here than meets the eye. People tend to believe what their ideology bids them believe. It’s called confirmation bias. Those who think environmental issues generally and global warming in particular are existential crises are overjoyed; those who think the whole thing is a hoax are not. (The ranks of those who think global warming and Covid19 are hoaxes are being thinned by Darwinian mechanisms.) Those of us in the center are left to ponder the facts, after Dick Gregory’s excellent advice that one should start with the truth before tampering with it.
Nearly all of this has been about domestic and global politics, not climate science and technology. That’s a problem, because the people who make the policy calls are politicians, and politicians typically know little about science, technology, engineering, or statistics. They choose language and tools for dealing with these issues because they’re familiar with the language and hope to control the tools, whether these are appropriate for managing real-world problems or not. They are not.
On its own, all the international conference approach to global warming is apt to achieve is full employment for diplomats and retired cabinet officials, along with a significant, polluting waste of aviation fuel. The actual scientists who attend these international conclaves have to fly economy.
It has all been about the optics, the more as what we now call climate change becomes growingly politicized, like just about everything else in American life. Politics, when dosed sufficiently with ideology, deranges anything and everything practical.
To illustrate, consider the locution “climate change.” When concern about rising global temperatures first arose, thirty-plus years ago, educated people used the phrase “global warming,” not “climate change.” Why? Precision—and precision, then, included the logical assumption that warmer temperatures would advantage some species, and some human populations, but disadvantage others. This has always been the case. It is no longer permissible to say so in public. When the late Freeman Dyson had the temerity to do so a few years ago, he was tossed from the hive of respectability by swarms of soldier drone bees guarding the moral purity of the honeyed guild.
Anyone who passed eighth-grade earth science knows the planet’s climate has been changing continuously for several million years, sometimes warming, sometimes cooling, sometimes slowly and sometimes faster. The Little Ice Age, for example, from about 1300 to 1850, made the Northern Hemisphere colder. This followed a significant warming trend from about 950 to 1250; this was, obviously, before the Industrial Revolution. To describe a climate oscillation that features a warming trend as “climate change” is like describing someone falling from the roof of a twelve-story building as “moving.” Motion is involved, sure; but somehow the term misses the significance of the moment, doesn’t it?
When language gets deranged, it’s a sure sign the thinking behind it is deranged as well. In short: The Greta Thunberg approach to global warming suggests a moral panic that in its extreme form resembles any garden-variety millenarian cult. Like all cults, it is impervious to scientific doubt and debate, and tends to maximalist interpretations of both danger and guilt. Most such true believers couldn’t pass a freshman earth science midterm.
Moral panic over the environment used to stand primus inter pares, but now it has to get in line with the moral panics about racial justice, #MeToo, and anything concerning transgenderism. America, and parts of Europe with it, is experiencing another Great Awakening. Why this should be is a question for another time. There are kernels of justification and usually more in all these matters, but it is the nature of moral panics that those in their grip emote exorbitantly and exaggerate everything. This is why typically, and these days certainly, they evoke equally emotional opposition. (A once-in-a-century global pandemic has hardly helped to settle everyone’s nerves.)
But this is not how scientists trying to deal with real problems work. In the end, as solutions to environmental problems emerge, it will be scientists, technologists and engineers who come up with them, not hysterics, who are about as useful for practical purposes as monkeys in a machine room.
In mass democracies, however, politicians cannot duck politics, however irrational they may be, and it’s churlish to expect them to. They must attend them because human nature hasn’t changed since Walter Lippmann wrote Public Opinion in 1922: “For the most part, we do not first see and then define, we define first and then we see.” (An early description of confirmation bias.)
Biden’s latest announcements, including his declaration that the US will halve its CO2 output by 2030, have thus occasioned the schizophrenic reaction you’d expect. End-of-the-world environmentalists believe (word carefully chosen) this is the most welcome event since the invention of Kombucha. Radical right sceptics believe it’s part of the socialist, globalist plot to destroy their freedoms and take their hamburgers—the black helicopters arrive next year.
Neither one knows or cares a whit that US emissions are already on a significant declining trajectory and have been for a while—same is true in most of Europe—owing to deindustrialization, demography, and a market-driven substitution of less polluting energy. Getting to “half” by 2030 may not be achieved, but it’s not that far-fetched. If it is achieved, though, it won’t be because the US has rejoined the Paris Agreement.
But some of Biden’s plans might work
Here is the good news: Some of Biden’s plans are unlike Obama’s in critical ways. If we care about fixing problems—with solutions in the realm of the possible and the prudent—they are better.
The Democratic Party platform was mostly unremitting babble. It devoted but one short paragraph, made up of two vague sentences, to science, technology, and innovation. But soon after his inauguration, the President announced he would integrate some disused and misused Executive Branch science policy units; he nominated geneticist Eric Lander as his science advisor and elevated the position to Cabinet rank. This came as a wonderful and unexpected surprise; it should have happened many, many years ago. If Biden manages to drag Congress along, his approach to the climate challenge may well be useful not only in getting discrete results, but in creating a new government organization paradigm for science across a range of public policy domains, with all the potential this could unlock.
Do President Biden and his top advisers grasp that the politics and the praxis of global warming run on two mostly separate tracks? Politics can’t be denied, so it’s an interesting but unanswerable question (by me, anyway). If they know, then they realize the politics are purely performative, albeit necessary. If so, they are already aware of the three generic problems with the global conference approach that epitomizes Kyoto, Paris, and Biden’s much-publicized recent summit.
Why global conferences are doomed
First, by aspiring to maximum participation, the global conclave approach sacrifices rigor and enforceability to legitimacy. In all exercises aimed at global governance functions save those far below the political line of sight (like the International Bank of Settlements and the Universal Postal Union), there is an unavoidable tradeoff between efficacy and legitimacy. Those who would design such efforts must choose with eyes wide open.
Second, taking a lowest-common-denominator approach to achieve maximum legitimacy cedes bargaining power to the weakest but most recalcitrant players; in this case, to countries like India and China, but also to a fairly large group of smaller—but not small—Asian countries, including Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Pakistan. The key result is a legitimated consensus that in fact robs the accord of legitimacy in the very countries most essential to its implementation. A related secondary result is the undermining of trust between wealthy countries who agree to subsidize the agreement’s implementation and poor countries who promise to spend this money as intended, but probably won’t. This arrangement, smuggled into the Paris architecture redolent of the charity model of the traditional foreign aid business is a very bad and unpropitious idea.
Third and most important, Kyoto and Paris are based on the premise that the long-term benefits of reducing fossil fuel emissions justify the short-term economic costs of transitioning to renewables—as though use of renewables would pose no environmental problems if they rose to scale at current and future global GDP levels. We need to examine this last premise with care; it is a veritable cornucopia of error.
Nothing’s as simple as you think
According to standard assessments, about 80 percent of energy use worldwide remains fossil fuel in origin—mainly oil, gas, and coal. No serious person believes that this level of use can be driven below 50 percent within the next fifteen years if we trust to some combination of voluntary national emission caps and normal market behavior alone.1 Driving it down faster would require draconian, government-enforced reductions in fossil fuel use—which would depress GNP in wealthy countries and induce sharp constraints on growth in developing ones—or a concerted international effort to accelerate technological innovation to reduce emissions then disseminate and apply the technology. That innovation might include new ways of using fossil fuels or renewables of known but poorly exploited types. The former approach overflows with political poison, so it simply will not happen.2 The latter requires imagination, leadership, hard work, astute management, cooperation across national boundaries, and patience. It could, however, happen.
Some critics of the Kyoto-Paris approach to climate change have distorted the issue of costs. Even Bjorn Lomborg, who has the right basic idea—concerted and accelerated government-supported green-tech innovation is the best way forward—has been guilty of this. He and others have argued that even if Paris works exactly as advertised, the impact on temperature would be nugatory and the costs astronomical. Lomborg’s numbers have come under fire from critics who accuse him of focusing on worst-case scenarios, but his message resonates all the same: Paris is a wildly expensive way to accomplish next to nothing.
Alas, it’s not quite so simple. First, in calculating how much a reduction in emissions will lead to a slowing of warming trends, Lomborg implies that this relationship is well understood. It isn’t. There is more evidence of correlation than there is confidence in cause. Something similar is true in cardiology, for example, where correlation between cholesterol levels and incidence of heart attack and stroke is strong, but the causal relationships are elusive; this has given rise to pharmaceuticals that reduce cholesterol levels but not so much the actual incidence of heart attack and stroke. Something similarly complex probably makes it hard to posit a linear relationship between the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and temperatures. There are problems yet to solve, as most high-credentialed climate scientists recognize.
To take just one of these problems, the New York Times reported in 2017 that atmospheric CO2 would seem to be fertilizing plants and fructifying the earth: More CO2 seems to cause more vegetative growth. “Dr. Campbell and his colleagues,” the article announced, “have discovered that in the last century, plants have been growing at a rate far faster than at any other time in the last 54,000 years.”
For those of us who passed earth science in high school, it had long been obvious that warmer temperatures and more moisture would accelerate plant growth. Plants—for those of you who missed class—take in CO2 and give out oxygen. The notion that CO2 emissions just float around up there forever isn’t correct. Nor, by the way, is the assumption—this will shock some of you, so hold on to whatever you can hold onto—that someone, somewhere, regularly samples the atmosphere to count and monitor trends in particulate density and accumulation. No one has or does; it’s not as easy to do as you may assume. All the numbers we see about carbon dioxide and other compounds at various atmospheric levels are modelled extrapolations from samples taken near the Earth.
The ecosphere has a way of cycling gasses, which is why climate pragmatists have recognized for years that one cost-effective and otherwise useful way to mitigate the warming problem is to plant a whole lot of trees. Obviously, plants can’t absorb great gobs of CO2 indefinitely; there is a saturation limit somewhere. But the point is that our models cannot yet firmly capture the dynamic relationship between temperature and the mix of gasses in the atmosphere.
Then consider how CO2 gets into the atmosphere in the first place. Burning fossil fuels is one way. It is not the only way. Capital-intensive monoculture agriculture is another. Some estimates hold that deep tilling, and the failure to re-seed agricultural land after harvest, is responsible for as much as a third of carbon emissions. Most estimates range from 10 to 24 percent, showing, once again, that these numbers are just estimates. But even a low-end 10 percent is a lot, and just half the highest estimate is far more. It’s enough to know that government-mandated smart agriculture techniques could reduce emissions faster and at a lower cost than the Paris Agreement.
That’s not the end of error in this third problem domain. What does “cost” mean in this context? Who exactly pays the trillions of dollars to which Lomborg and others refer? This is a crucial question, because it is prelude to grasping the potentially revolutionary impact of the Biden approach to the problem.
One way to define “cost” is by lost production and thus lowered GDP. These costs would be borne by economies and thus societies, but the distribution of costs within societies would vary according to the shape of their political economy. The costs would be real, but beyond a very modest level, neither wealthy nor developing countries are politically inclined to pay them.
Another way to define “cost”, however, is by the investments and adaptations involved in moving away from coal and oil and toward natural gas, or moving away from fossil fuels toward renewables.
There is a huge difference between cost defined as foregone production and cost defined as capital redirected toward investment in innovation. It’s a bit like the difference between legislatures passing spending bills that subsidise current consumption and bills that invest in future growth capacity—and anyone who doesn’t understand that difference can’t understand much else. Politics makes paying the latter sort of cost vastly more likely than the former: No one votes for austerity.
This is why large corporations involved in energy liked Paris: They stand to make a boodle from the transition, and they’re eager to attract investment of all sorts (government, private, commercial) to make the necessary innovation happen. Yes, their stand on Paris has a public relations dimension, and yes, their employees and shareholders are as greenwashed as the general public. But make no mistake: Sound business sense has been the motor of their enthusiasm.
One can think of the Paris approach, then, as a sprawling, essentially unmanageable, and underperforming behemoth of an incentive generator. Implicitly, it expects national private sectors to innovate and so drive economies toward environmentally beneficial destinations. Fine; maybe this will happen, and maybe, with energy being anything but a normal free market, it won’t. The motivational value of Paris and other Davos Man-extravaganzas like it probably isn’t zero.
But whatever their use as incentive assets, it isn’t clear that the participation of the United States matters much one way or the other. US emissions have been falling for some years now because natural gas has been replacing coal and population growth has stalled. Many European countries are in the same boat. Alas, one of the political trade secrets of the climate change business is that until very recently, emissions rose in lock step with GDP growth and GDP growth tends to be a function of demography—no matter what public policy happens to be.
So Biden’s climate confab—track one of the policy—may do some good over time. But it’s track two, which Biden is pursuing with less fanfare as part of his so-called infrastructure initiative, that holds the most promise. (Why not tout this in public, too, you may ask? Have you ever tried to explain differential calculus to a pigeon? There, that’s your answer.) The better way is for the United States to lead an international green-tech innovation effort to accelerate the transition from highly polluting to less polluting ways of using energy.
How? That’s easy. The US government created ARPA-E to do just that, on a national level, in 2007.
ARPA-E was based on the DARPA concept that proved so successful in the national defense sector. Never mind its origins, which, actually and truth to tell, I and a colleague named William Bonvillian had a little something to do with. Suffice it to say that Congress has failed to fund it properly, and the Trump Administration tried to zero it out despite the success it’s had even on a pauper’s budget. Rather than eliminating ARPA-E, the Trump Administration should have scaled it up and internationalized it. Imagine if Trump had pulled out of the Paris Accord in 2017, but, rather than flipping the bird at the rest of the world, said something like this:
We recognize that you can’t beat something with nothing. We don’t think the Paris Accord is the best way to deal with the problem before us and the world, but we have a better idea. We want to accelerate innovation in the energy sector by creating a massive, cooperative international R&D project, bigger and better than the Manhattan Project. We’re not content to trust the private sector to deal with this challenge. We don’t have time for that, and we recognize the occasional special need for government to serve the common good, as in infrastructure, with highly targeted investments. In this case, governments must invest cooperatively for the good of all mankind. We’re going to create a global ARPA-E.
It is ridiculous, of course, to imagine the Trump Administration ever thinking along such lines. It would have constituted an unnatural act.
But what grieved me at the time was that the Obama Administration, which so dearly wished to “lead the world” on climate change, lacked the vision to question the Paris paradigm or propose something better. The best it could come up with was a half-assed, crony-riddled version of a serious policy. The infamous Solyndra case says it all; look it up if you’ve forgotten the particulars. Not only did a pile of money get wasted amid heaps of favoritism and political sweetheart gestures but, much worse, Solyndra soured Congress and others on the whole approach. The bad apple ruined the whole barrel.
The Biden Administration, however, fairly clearly knows what it’s doing here. It has a plan that can work, and the plan lives already at a level of detail such that if someone had briefed me on this two months ago, I would have been highly sceptical of the proffered claims.
The Administration has proposed creating ARPA-C—C for Climate, of course—which will focus on the research priorities recommended by the founding director of ARPA-E: grid-scale storage, carbon capture, small modular nuclear reactors, decarbonizing the food and agriculture sector, and more. The budget—US$1 billion—is too tiny a fraction of the US$2.3-trillion infrastructure proposal, and it is to be shared with ARPA-E. But the spending plan as a whole would shovel a huge amount of money toward innovation research at the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.
Of course, at this stage it’s just a plan, and it can get better. It can also be voted into oblivion. Implementation depends on Biden’s ability to sell it to the public and Congress, where Democrats enjoy only a slim majority. Whether and how it will work turns on faith, but educated and experienced faith rather than the blind kind. As with the original DARPA, it is almost certain to lead to significant scientific innovations, even if they are not necessarily what we expect.
Initial public reaction has been strikingly positive: More than two-thirds of Americans, including even a majority of Republicans, support the infrastructure plan. But this level of support may drop as the GOP hones its criticism, honest and mostly otherwise, and as the price tag, added to all the other price tags, induces sticker shock. So far, the GOP line of attack has been that the money won’t really go to infrastructure—defined unimaginatively as “roads and bridges”—but to far-left priorities and Solyndra-like cronyism. The Administration has made itself vulnerable to these attacks by including politicized priorities in the plan, as it did with the stimulus bill, along with a lot of pork. Just politics braying in the breeze.
But withal, if Biden manages to push through the R&D budget while quietly accepting the Paris accords for what they are—the Kellogg-Briand Pact of climate change—we may achieve something very useful. Or we may not. It all turns on the politics. What, these days, doesn’t?
Adam Garfinkle is a member of the editorial board of American Purpose and a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. This updated essay draws on “Leaving Paris in the Springtime,” published in The American Interest on June 12, 2017.