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A Manufactured "Success" in Paris

Walter Russell Mead & Jamie Horgan

Is that green smoke we see above Notre Dame? That can only mean one thing… we have a climate deal! Climate delegates in Paris approved an agreement this afternoon to much cheering, back-patting, and triumphant quote-giving. The New York Times reports:

After a day of stops and starts, Mr. Fabius, the president of the climate conference, declared that there was a consensus and struck down the gavel at 7:26 p.m., a surprisingly abrupt close to formal proceedings that had threatened to last into the night. […]

The new deal will not, on its own, solve global warming. At best, scientists who have analyzed it say, it will cut global greenhouse gas emissions by about half what is necessary to stave off an increase in atmospheric temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That is the point at which scientific studies have concluded the world will be locked into a future of devastating consequences, including rising sea levels, severe droughts and flooding, widespread food and water shortages, and more destructive storms.

The agreement is a far cry from the binding international treaty eco-activists envisioned in the run-up to the summit. Instead, it is the codification of national pledges called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) made by UN members. These pledges trickled in in advance of the conference and, according to the treaty (which you can read here), countries “shall communicate a nationally determined contribution every five years.” Instead of the UN’s setting targets for individual countries to adhere to, nations are charged with creating their own plans themselves, and updating those plans every five years going forward.

But for many greens, the reality is now sinking in of just how watered-down this “successful” summit really was. The NYT has more:

Several thousand climate activists from across Europe and many from farther afield gathered peacefully near the Arc de Triomphe on Saturday to protest the outcome of the COP 21 climate conference about 12 miles away. […]

Even as the delegates at the official conference center reached a landmark accord and applauded their achievement, the crowds on the street made clear their belief that it would take much more than the measures in the deal to halt global climate change.

Expect this feeling to deepen within the environmental community in the coming weeks as the treaty’s wording is parsed and its implications are spelled out. And from the greens’ perspective, it’s not hard to understand the dissatisfaction. As Bjorn Lomborg pointed out before the conference began, the sum total of INDC commitments through 2030 would only reduce warming by 0.048 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, and those commitments extended out through 2100 would cut global temperature rises by just 0.17 degrees Celsius. These are not the sorts of numbers the environmental movement wanted to see.

Overall what came out of Paris was the diplomatic equivalent of a New Year’s resolution to go on a strict weight loss regime involving no more than six chocolate eclairs between meals. But the negotiators did pay some attention to one green concern: The goal has been lowered. Instead of pretending to take actions that will hold the total temperature increase down to 2 degrees Celsius, we will now, in the words of the document, solemnly pretend to “[pursue] efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C.” There was, however, no mechanism specified to reach this target; nobody volunteered to adopt more aggressive decarbonization policies to implement this change in the real world. In other words, the world announced that it intends to lose weight on the same six eclair diet as before.

There was little hope for any other outcome. World leaders can spin this however they like, but the real meaning of the Paris agreement is that the world is as far from adopting the kind of climate strategies greens want as ever. The world’s governments (with a handful of exceptions) are determined to go their own way on climate policy, whether that makes greens happy or not.

It’s also worth noting that the annual $100 billion climate fund, established with great fanfare in 2009’s failed Copenhagen summit as a way for the developed world to help the developing world cope with the effects of climate change, wasn’t exactly enshrined in “legally binding” language. From the relevant section (Article 9, paragraph 3):

As part of a global effort, developed country Parties should continue to take the lead in mobilizing climate finance from a wide variety of sources, instruments and channels, noting the significant role of public funds, through a variety of actions, including supporting country-driven strategies, and taking into account the needs and priorities of developing country Parties. Such mobilization of climate finance should represent a progression beyond previous efforts.

Notice the distinct lack of specific numbers there, and the aspirational tone. The world’s advanced countries, so theoretically keen to address the evils of climate change, have refused to commit themselves to handing over the cash. This won’t just disappoint developing countries looking for compensation for growth-restrictive eco-friendly policies; it’s a bitter blow to the “greentrepreneurs” whose long-term goal remains to use climate politics to mandate huge subsidies for inefficient green tech (like ethanol). Getting taxpayers in the developed world to subsidize inefficient green energy generation in the developing world remains the key goal of many of the investors and money people funding a lot of the climate movement. In the run-up to this summit, we saw the UN rush its first eight climate fund projects through an expedited review process in an attempt to allay the developing world’s concerns. In reality, that sort of shoddy green-lighting only exacerbated the developed world’s concerns over the fund, and now the world’s rich countries have once again backed away from it, perhaps wisely so.

Hypocrisy is the necessary lubricant of international life, and the Paris agreement is about as well lubricated as they come. Nobody is serious about this “agreement,” but the diplomats have agreed that a hollow facade of an agreement is preferable to the PR disaster that failure would have been. There will no doubt be many follow-ups, jet-setting conferences in many more attractive destinations, and climate diplomacy will continue to produce more greenhouse gasses than climate agreements block.

What we will now see is various world leaders striking inspiring historical poses. With Libya in ruins, Syria in flames, Ukraine on the brink, and ISIS on the march, President Obama and Secretary Kerry are particularly eager to convince themselves and the public that the Paris Accord is an actual accomplishment. But historians are likely to agree that the Accord abolished climate change the way that the Kellogg-Briand treaty ended war.

This isn’t the game changer many observers hoped it would be, though the establishment of regular updates of those INDCs already makes it a step forward from Copenhagen. Now the world’s governments will have to endure self-righteous tongue lashings from self-righteous greens at regular intervals. The green movement hopes that this will produce real change, but those hopes seem likely to be disappointed. Developing countries can and will excuse their inaction by pointing to the absence of that $100 billion slush fund, and, in any case, the governments of many developing country are surprisingly indifferent to the views of first-world NGO scolds.

The greatest consolation for those who are concerned about climate change is that the Paris negotiation was always a distraction from the real work of reducing humanity’s planetary footprint as our prosperity grows. The Chinese are rich enough now to care about how filthy their air is; that will drive change more than anything that happens in Paris. Fracking has made natural gas cheaper and more reliable than coal in the United States. Online shopping is keeping people home from the malls, and more and more workers are working remotely. Down the road, more changes will come as the world shifts from a manufacturing economy based on metal bashing to an information and service economy. Technological change is also coming: self-driving cars, renewable energy that can actually compete with fossil fuels without generous government subsidies, genetically modified plants that don’t need fertilizer or pesticide, safe nuclear power. Always and everywhere, capitalism is pushing companies to produce more goods using fewer raw materials and energy, and generating less waste.

Much as the last great Malthusian panics (the population bomb and peak oil) quietly fizzled out, the panicky, Chicken Little aspects of the green movement are likely to fade over time. The economy of the future will produce more abundance and leave a smaller footprint than the economy we have today. It will be capitalism and innovation that we have to thank for that; fortunately, United Nations climate diplomacy isn’t humanity’s line of defense against eco-catastrophe.

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