The American Interest
Walter Russell Mead
What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, the Great Green Delusion — that the United Nations process could deliver a treaty that would stop global warming dead in its tracks — was the hottest idea in town. Those who dissented were scorned and despised; the environmental movement and its army of press loyalists were the Great and the Good who knew how to solve the world’s problems. 120 country heads dropped whatever they were doing to catch a flight to Copenhagen: who could miss a historic moment like this?
Now, a year and two high-profile international negotiating fiascoes later, the next scheduled meeting in the UN process in Cancun, Mexico isn’t getting nearly the same kind of attention. The New York Times will not even be sending a reporter for the full event; “What will there even be to cover in Cancun in terms of public policy or reader interest?” asks the chief climate reporter of the Washington Post. The BBC sent 20 reporters to Copenhagen; only one will go to Cancun.
It is not just that the Cancun meeting isn’t expected to produce much. The whole UN treaty process is increasingly being seen as a colossal and humiliating blunder. Embarrassed environmentalists are finding it harder and harder to pretend that this particular parrot is only, as the Monty Python skit put it, ‘pining for the fjords.’ Worse, some of the smarter greens out there are realizing that the UN process is not going to disappear just because it is a dead end.
Most people have long stopped following the tortuous saga of the collapse of the UN process to fight climate change by adopting a treaty to be signed by all 192 members of the United Nations. The treaty was intended to be the successor to the ineffective and expiring Kyoto Protocol, and was conceived of as a ‘grand bargain.’ The US Senate had in effect rejected Kyoto 95-0 because the Protocol limited US emissions without placing restrictions on the rapidly growing economies of the developing world. Son of Kyoto (call it SOK for short) would get around this by placing limits of some kind on all the world’s countries. The geniuses behind SOK framed the problem this way: how do we get the developing countries to sign on to carbon limits strict enough that the US Senate would ratify the next global treaty?
The answer was obvious: bribe them. Put enough rich country taxpayer money on the table and even the most corrupt and shortsighted rentier regimes in the developing world will experience an extraordinary upsurge in green conviction. The dream was that the developing countries properly and appropriately compensated would sign on to emission limits of their own, the US Senate would ratify and as Barack Obama explained it to us, the earth would begin to cool and the seas start to recede.
This was a fool’s errand from the beginning, but the decision to assign the complex and delicate SOK negotiation was to the United Nations under rules that require the unanimous consent of 190 plus countries before a treaty draft can be approved guaranteed failure.
Universal consent for a treaty of this kind makes no sense: it frankly doesn’t matter to the atmosphere or anyone else whether Vanuatu, Equatorial Guinea, the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea or Cuba signs on or not. And many of the other ‘negotiators’ in this process — I forbear to name any countries — have such feeble and crooked governments that they are incapable of enforcing a climate treaty no matter how many inspiring documents they sign. Yet under the UN rules, any one of these countries can veto the treaty and bring the whole process to a juddering halt.
The SOK negotiations quickly turned into a parody of diplomacy in which political reality disappeared from view. Northern green activists lobbied to get strict carbon targets adopted. Developing country diplomats focused on ‘appropriate compensation’. Just how green did the North want the South to become, and just how much money was the North willing to pay to make this happen? Negotiators played with rich country aid budgets like kids with Monopoly money, and issued vague and intoxicating pledges that, in an era of austerity, will never be honored.
In the hothouse fantasy land of UN negotiations, the path to compromise looked simple. Soon enough, the numbers began to come clear: northern activists developed a formula for carbon restriction that they liked and the southern diplomats found a number that worked for them: a $100 billion sweetener to start, ultimately rising to $100 billion a year to be paid by the advanced countries to the developing ones in order to compensate them for pain and suffering.
True, the inspiring solidarity of the developing world rapidly broke down in a squalid battle over how to parcel out the hundred billion, and developing countries were strangely resistant to proposals that international monitors verify their compliance with the treaty regime, but overall this was a beautiful and brilliant plan with only one flaw: pigs will fly and the Hudson River will flow with Perrier before the US Senate ratifies a treaty like this.
Let’s review the bidding for a moment. Even John Kerry and Ted Kennedy voted against the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that it was too tough on the US and too easy on China and India. Kyoto would have restricted US carbon output but left China and India free to do what they liked. This is the problem the new treaty was supposed to fix.
Our genius environmentalists came up with the idea that in order to make the treaty more palatable to US public opinion and therefore to the Senate, the US would assume an open-ended and eternal obligation to pay tens of billions of dollars a year to various developing world governments, however corrupt, incompetent, dictatorial and unfriendly these might be. Iran, Cuba, and North Korea would get money just like Yemen, Syria and Sudan. In exchange, these countries along with India and China would accept restrictions on their carbon output that are significantly less drastic than those to be imposed on the US.
Who could possibly object to a smart plan like this? What US Senator wouldn’t love to defend a vote to force taxpayers to subsidize Iran while giving China permanent business advantages over the US? Surely Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh would find nothing to attack here. Getting two thirds of the Senate to ratify a no-brainer like this would be a cakewalk.
This is the fruit of the gigantic brains of the Great Gurus of Green. This is the bright shining idea at the core of the UN process: that US opposition to Kyoto could be overcome by requiring the US to pay tens of billions of dollars in Green Danegeld to the third world every year. And the people who thought of this had Big Degrees from Name Schools! We know, because they keep telling us, that they are smarter than the rest of us and they understand complex systems better than we do. These are the geniuses to whom we are to entrust ever greater control over ever larger swathes of the global economy because, after all, they see so clearly and so far.
Meanwhile, back in the actual world where voters live, cap-and-trade failed to find 60 Senate votes and went down in flames this year, and its unpopularity helped defeat Democrats in marginal seats. How does attaching a thirty billion dollar a year foreign aid bill (roughly the US share of any $100 billion annual transfer from rich to poor countries) to a tax-raising carbon bill make it more popular? What are the chances that a treaty like that will get a two thirds vote in the Senate when cap and trade couldn’t get 60?
The truth is increasingly hard to disguise: Son of Kyoto is a fatally flawed, deeply dumb idea and every minute and every dime spent on it has been wasted right from the start. Whether you believe in global warming or not, it is (or ought to be) blindingly obvious that nothing short of a coup d’etat or a lost war would get Son of Kyoto through the US Senate. Any US Senate. Ever.
The mainstream press has all along been the key point of failure. The press consistently failed to subject SOK proponents to basic common-sense questioning; arguably this dereliction of duty is to blame for whatever additional climate change results from wasted years and lost credibility. The view that environmental reporters have been captured by their subject and have become clueless cheerleaders rather than critical observers was widely shared by their colleagues, reports a must-read piece by Margot O’Neill, an Australian journalist and climate change proponent who spent a year studying environmental journalism in Britain. The Climategate scandal of hacked email plus the ludicrous and unvetted IPCC claims about melting Himalayan glaciers led to a newsroom backlash against climate reporters who told O’Neill that their colleagues responded with “dirty looks, a “sense of betrayal”, accusations that climate reporters had “gone native,” and cries that “you told me the science was settled – and it isn’t!” As one British print journalist summed it up, “Climate-gate was extremely damaging in many ways. It gave the impression that journalists had been duped. I think in the end it was mountains out of mole-hills but it looked really bad.”
These days, however, even the press is getting the message. The Economist, the house organ of the global establishment (and easily the best-written and smartest weekly news magazine published in English) now concedes that the effort to stop global warming by treaty has run out of gas and that since the Earth is going to warm, we need to think about managing change rather than stopping it. The Financial Times, the salmon-pink newspaper that most global financiers, investors and CEOs read every day, is also coming, regretfully, to the same conclusion. FT columnist Phillip Stevens thinks that capitalism will have to save the planet as politicians have failed. Over at Politico, Darren Samuelsohn’s piece says that the UN climate talks are “in limbo“; the Columbia Journalism Review reports that articles on climate change have recently touched a four year low. Two of three climate op-eds published in this Sunday’s New York Times assume the irrelevance of global CO2 carbon negotiations and propose alternative approaches to climate issues.
The public has lost interest, the press is embarrassed, the policy has failed. There is then a widespread, even a near-universal agreement that the Cancun meeting will not raise the chances for action on the Son of Kyoto agenda.
None of this of course is enough to stop green lobbyists and diplomats from spewing pollution, carbonaceous and otherwise, into the earth’s bruised and weary atmosphere on yet another vain junket. The reporters are staying away in droves, but the bureaucrats and the lobbyists are flocking to Cancun from all over the world. Tons of CO2 will pour into the atmosphere, acres of forest will be denuded for tons of useless memos and unread reports that will be quickly discarded, mostly unread, by the delegates. Carbon-emitting generators will burn night and day, pumping out the power to keep the conference rooms crisp and cool as the green grandees try to pretend that something meaningful is taking place and the brain-dead UN process grinds on.
(Ever wonder why more diplomatic gasfests aren’t scheduled for horrible or dull locations? If delusional green treaty addicts must waste time, money and resources on worthless, no-hope diplomatic engagements, obviously they don’t intend to spend time in unpleasant surroundings. And as for setting an example to the rest of us by canceling high-profile but pointless gatherings and substituting low carbon videoconferencing for Mexican beach weekends, don’t be absurd. The Right to Junket is a pillar of the Universal Declaration of Bureaucratic Perks and it would be a serious thought crime to suggest that they all just stay home.)
As serious greens and other interested parties now struggle to figure out what to do about managing the growing impact of human activity on our battered and vulnerable planet, the rotting, bloated corpse of this UN process could stink up the room for years to come. Like a dead whale on the beach, the SOK process isn’t going away anytime soon. The developing world is never going to forget that hundred billion dollars, and all future discussions of cooperative environmental action will have to wrestle with inflated hopes raised by irresponsible declarations at Copenhagen and elsewhere.
The Ecologist, an authoritative environmental website, contains some deeply dispiriting ideas about what the Cancun debates will be all about. Much of the business will revolve around money — specifically, around charges by developing countries that they aren’t getting enough money fast enough. Only 13 percent of the promised money has actually been received; more, the developed countries seem to be systematically welshing on their solemn pledges to pay the Green Danegeld in new money rather than shuffling their existing aid budgets to relabel old money as ‘green’. And then there is the problem of oversight. The developing countries generally want the money paid through a UN body, for reasons which I am sure have nothing whatever to do with the UN’s demonstrated inability to monitor the use of money or fight corruption. For reasons no doubt deeply rooted in imperialism and racism, developed countries prefer that any donations that they do in fact make be handled by relatively tightfisted organizations like the World Bank. But is the money being allocated properly among developing countries? There are a great many who think it isn’t, and they have alternative formulas to propose. By an odd coincidence, the countries proposing these new formulas would benefit substantially if they were adopted.
And other important questions are waiting to be ventilated at Cancun. Is $100 billion really enough for the first tranche? Wouldn’t $200 billion be a more appropriate figure? The printers are churning out position papers on this topic; the delegates are ready to engage.
This kind of squabble can go on for years, providing comfortable employment and interesting travel opportunities for diplomats and bureaucrats until the last shrinking ice floe capsizes under the weight of the last polar bear and the last drop of moisture falls from the last patch of Himalayan ice.
The one positive outcome of this misbegotten process is the slow rise of smart environmental commentary as more and more reporters and commentators see the treaty farce for what it is. Recent articles in the FT and the Economist are notable for their focus on approaches to environmental problems that don’t depend on top down, state-heavy interventions. At the Globe and Mail in Canada, Margaret Wente makes some strong points, even if she does quote irresponsible hotheads like yours truly. My old CFR colleague Michael Levi is making some important and interesting points on his lively, well informed blog. Belatedly, the more intelligent environmentalists seem to be warming to a shift away from the effort to impose a top down, state driven and ham-fisted approach via an expensive and unratifiable treaty to a variety of smaller scale, more tightly focused ideas that depend more on local initiatives and the private sector.
Son of Kyoto (like the Kyoto Protocol itself) has never been anything but a huge diversion from the real conversations that need to take place. It has polarized debate and wasted time, and its demise leaves the world no closer to practical approaches to greenhouse gasses than we were a decade ago. An active and engaged reporter on the environmental beat would be putting together the full story of how this disaster took place, how much it cost, who the geniuses were who put it together — and attempting to estimate how much it all cost.
Our society desperately needs brave, imaginative, indefatigable journalists who are willing to follow important stories no matter who they threaten or offend. Let’s hope they turn up.