In Monday’s Wall Street Journal, Steven Hayward, visiting professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy, wrote an op-ed in which he criticized the administration’s plans for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations that will commence in Paris this November. He resents the degree to which the administration relies on executive action to achieve climate change-related goals, and fears that a new international deal, which will not be voted on by Congress, will be disastrous for the U.S. economy. Hayward recommends Congress adopt measures to ensure that any deal reached at Paris protects American interests, in a way that the Kyoto Protocol allegedly did not.
Hayward’s analysis, however, misses how this round of negotiations is different than Kyoto, in ways that are advantageous for the United States.
In a departure from the structures that grew out of the Kyoto Protocol, developed and developing world countries alike are committing to action in the run up to Paris. Each nation must publish in advance its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC)—essentially a national plan to reduce emissions. For the United States, its INDC consists of action the federal government is taking—fuel standards for passenger vehicles, rolling out alternatives to hydrofluorocarbons, and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan—that is sanctioned by laws that Congress has already passed. So, blocking U.S. action in Paris would mean blocking President Obama’s domestic agenda—which means rolling back authorities that the federal government has possessed for decades.
In a development that should please Hayward, however, not only are INDCs required from rich countries, but also from those that had escaped specific obligations under Kyoto—such as big developing-world emitters India and China. While we are not likely to know the specifics of every national plan until before the UNFCCC’s October 1 deadline for inclusion in a pre-Paris synthesis report, the handful submitted to date already cover roughly a third of global emissions, according to the Climate Action Tracker. Hayward’s concerns that Congress must intervene if a deal reached at Paris does not cover more than 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions is thus redundant; if Paris cannot get above the 80 percent mark on its own, the United Nations will declare it a failure and be forced to start over. For the UNFCCC, it’s universal or bust.
Additionally, contrary to his assertion, “[t]he basic international economics of greenhouse-gas reductions” have actually changed drastically in the past twenty years. In the United States, the cost of transitioning away from coal has been cushioned by newly accessible reserves of natural gas. This soft-landing fuel switching has occurred at the same time that the costs for renewable sources of energy have plummeted. Far from getting out too far ahead of where the country is, the U.S. government has been playing catch-up with states that have been bold enough to adopt renewable energy standards and cap-and-trade programs, without making huge sacrifices in economic growth. The costs of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan are more than balanced by the savings in reduced health problems from particulate pollution, as well as the savings of avoiding harmful effects of future climate change.
While such transitions will be harder to accomplish in the developing world, where countries such as India argue that, in the short term, it needs to prioritize economic growth over absolute emissions reductions targets, attitudes have shifted remarkably in twenty years. The Chinese commitment to a peak emissions year, and to accelerate their already prodigious growth in deploying non-fossil fuel sources of energy, was a remarkable achievement that grew out of steady diplomacy from the administration, buoyed by the strong domestic action (such as the Clean Power Plan).
Neither is it clear that the United States is being taken for a ride when it comes to financial assistance to the developing world. While many conservatives have criticized or promised to block U.S. fulfillment of its pledge to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the new multilateral effort to steer financing for climate change projects to the developing world, they are essentially carping about a drop in the bucket. The $3 billion pledged for the GCF, which is meant to be global in scope, is equivalent to what the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave to the New York City Housing Authority for Hurricane Sandy-related damage.
Thus, what is likely to come out of Paris will neither be Kyoto redux, nor is it likely to harm the U.S. economy out of proportion to what is asked of the international community. In a larger sense, efforts like Hayward’s underscore that, while conservatives are unencumbered in criticizing Obama administration policy, the solutions they offer in its place are neither viable nor do they address the problem at hand.
Hayward rhetorically asks why the president does not “seek the involvement” of Congress in addressing climate change, when the answer is, to date, they have not been constructive in offering their own take on what U.S. policy on greenhouse gas emissions reductions should be. As with negotiations over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program or the Affordable Care Act, they criticize what has been achieved by hinting that a more perfect deal could have been at hand—if only the president had been smarter or tougher.