Despite President Barack Obama's vow, in his first post-reelection press conference, to take decisive action on climate change, the global climate talks in Doha are dragging to a close with the United States, as usual, a target of activists' wrath. The Obama administration has shown no interest in submitting to a binding treaty on carbon emissions and refuses to increase funding to help developing countries reduce their own emissions, while the United States continues to behave as a global scofflaw on climate change.
Actually, that's not true -- the last part, anyway. According to the International Energy Agency, U.S. emissions have dropped 7.7 percent since 2006 -- "the largest reduction of all countries or regions." Yes, you read that correctly. The United States, which has indeed refused to sign the Kyoto Accords establishing binding targets for emissions, has reduced its carbon footprint faster than the greener-than-thou European countries which have done so. The reasons for this have something to do with climate change itself (warm winters mean less heating oil -- something to do with market forces -- the shift from coal to natural gas in power plants) and something to do with policy at the state and regional level. And in the coming years, as both new gas-mileage standards and new power-plant regulations championed by the Obama administration kick in, policy will drive the numbers further downwards; U.S. emissions are expected to fall 23 percent between 2002 and 2020. Apparently Obama's record on climate change is not quite as calamitous as reputation would have it.
The West has largely succeeded in bending downwards the curve of carbon emissions. But the developing world has not. Last year, China's emissions rose 9.3 percent; India's, 8.7 percent. China is now the world's No. 1 source of carbon emissions, followed by the United States, the European Union, and India. The emerging powers have every reason to want to emulate the energy-intensive economic success of the West; even those, like China, who have taken steps to increase energy efficiency, are not prepared to do anything to harm economic growth. The real failure of U.S. policy has been, first, that it is still much too timid, and second, that it has not acted in such a way as to persuade developing nations to take the truly difficult decisions which would put the world on a sustainable path.
There's a useful analogy with the nuclear nonproliferation regime. In an earlier generation, the nuclear stockpiles of the United States and the Soviet Union posed the greatest threat to global security. Now the threat comes from the proliferation of weapons to weak or rogue states or to non-state actors. But the only way that Washington can persuade other governments to join in a tough nonproliferation regime is by taking the lead in reducing its own nuclear stockpile -- which the Obama administration has sought to do, albeit with very imperfect success. In a word where power is more widely distributed, U.S. action matters less in itself, but carries great weight as a demonstration model -- or anti-demonstration model.
Logic would thus dictate that the United States bind itself in a global compact to reduce emissions, as through the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) it has bound itself to reduce nuclear weapons. But the Senate would never ratify such a treaty. And even if it did, would China and India similarly bind themselves? Here the nuclear analogy begins to break down, because the NPT mostly requires that states submit to inspections of their nuclear facilities, while a climate change treaty poses what looks very much like a threat to states' economic growth. Fossil fuels are even closer to home than nukes. Is it any wonder that only EU countries and a few others have signed the Kyoto Accords? A global version of Kyoto is supposed to be readied by 2015, but a growing number of climate change activists -- still very much a minority -- accept that this may not happen and need not happen.
So what can Obama do? It is possible that much tougher action on emissions would help persuade China, India, and others that energy efficiency need not hinder economic growth. As Michael Levi, a climate expert at the Council on Foreign Relations points out, the United States gets little credit abroad for reducing emissions largely thanks to "serendipitous" events. Levi argues, as do virtually all policy thinkers and advocates, that the United States must increase the cost of fossil fuels, whether through a "carbon tax" or cap-and-trade system, so that both energy efficiency and alternative fuels become more attractive, and also to free up money to be invested in new technologies. This is what Obama's disappointed supporters thought he would do in the first term, and urge him to do now.