Yesterday Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman rolled out their new climate bill, the American Power Act. The 987-page piece of text was driven by what we've come to expect in climate legislation: Concrete targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions a certain percentage by a certain year. But, an international group of economists and environmental scientists are saying, that approach is doomed to failure, and this is the time to change. The Hartwell Paper, a product of 14 different authors working since February, came out this week to coincide with the release of the climate bill. The assessment is blunt: Reaching agreements like the Kyoto Protocols to reduce carbon emissions has been the primary means of addressing climate change since the mid-1980s, and it hasn't worked. With the high-profile flop that was the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, the authors argue this is the chance to drive a new course on climate policy, one not singularly focused on CO2. The Hartwell authors don't downplay the importance of CO2 as a greenhouse gas; rather, they point to the silliness of being so fixated on that one compound; the Earth's climate, after all, is a terribly complex system:
That is frustrating for politicians. So policy makers frequently respond to wicked problems by declaring ‘war’ on them, to beat them into submission and then move on. Indeed, almost any ‘declaration of war’ that is metaphorical rather than literal is a reliable sign that the subject in question is ‘wicked’. So, we have the war on cancer, the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on terror and now the war on climate change.
As we noted last week at the 25th anniversary of the ozone hole's discovery
, the ozone problem was one of those with a direct solution that governments could pursue in such a prompt, bludgeoning way. Climate change, not so much. And the paper authors also criticize the closed-off nature of choosing climate strategies that led to such focus on CO2:
A distinctive characteristic of the climate change debate has been of scientists claiming with the authority of their position that their results dictated particular policies; of policy makers claiming that their preferred choices were dictated by science, and both acting as if ‘science’ and ‘policy’ were simply and rigidly linked as if it were a matter of escaping from the path of an oncoming tornado.
So, then, if rigid carbon targets are not the way to address climate change, what would the Hartwell authors recommend?
Their oblique approach is to aim instead for a world with accessible, secure low cost energy for all. The hope, intuition or strategy at play here is that since fossil fuels cannot deliver such a world, its achievement will, in itself, bring about decarbonisation on a massive scale. Following a path stressing clean energy as a development issue provides a more pleasant journey to the same objective [The Economist].
Compared to what we've gotten used to in international agreements, it's a backward approach: Forget about cutting carbon emissions to an arbitrary level by subsidizing cleaner energy technology that's on the shelf now. Instead, wholeheartedly fund research and development to reach new energy sources capable of actually competing with fossil fuel in the marketplace, and cut carbon out of the economy that way. Meanwhile, go after the low-hanging fruit like slowing deforestation and cutting black carbon. In short, it's an energy policy first with climate benefits on the back end, instead of a huge worldwide climate policy.
They argue that there is something wrong with a world in which carbon-dioxide levels are kept to 450 parts per million (a trajectory widely deemed compatible with a 2 degree [Celsius] cap on warming) but at the same time more than a billion of the poorest people are left without electricity, as in one much discussed scenario from the International Energy Agency [The Economist].
The Hartwell Paper's talk of elevating human dignity is all well and good, but what about the final question: Can we really afford to wait for the world that its authors want?
Though the paper is not explicit on this, to accept that decarbonisation will require as-yet unavailable technologies to achieve deep penetration around the world is to accept that carbon-dioxide levels will get a lot higher than current policies want them to. Which might seem a good enough reason to reject the whole idea. Except that the current policies have not, as yet, made a very great deal of difference [The Economist].
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