The Climate Scofflaw

Is the United States really the impediment to a universal compact on global warming?

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.

Obama is probably not going to do that either. In his post-election press conference, he insisted that he would find "bipartisan" solutions to climate change, and congressional Republicans are only slightly more likely to accept a sweeping change in carbon pricing than they are to ratify a climate-change treaty. The president also said that any reform would have to create jobs and growth, which sounds very much like a signal that he will avoid new taxes or penalties (even though advocates of such plans insist that they would spur economic growth).

All these prudent political calculations are fine when you can afford to fail. But we can't afford to fail. Global temperatures have already increased 0.7 degrees Celsius (or about 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit). Disaster really strikes at a 2 degree Celsius increase, which leads to large-scale drought, wildfires, decreased food production, and coastal flooding. But the current global trajectory of coal, oil, and gas consumption means that, according to Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency's chief economist,  "the door to a 2 degree Celsius trajectory is about to close." That's how dire things are.

What, then, can Obama do that is equal to the problem? He can invest. Once the fiscal cliff negotiations are behind him, and after he has held his planned conversation with "scientists, engineers and elected officials," he can tell the American people that they have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the future, for themselves and for people everywhere. He can propose -- as he hoped to do as part of the stimulus package of 2009 -- that the U.S. build a "smart grid"  to radically improve the efficiency of electricity distribution. He can argue for large-scale investments in research and development of new sources of energy and energy-efficient construction technologies and lots of other whiz-bang things. This, too, was part of the stimulus spending; it must become bigger, and permanent. 

The reason Obama should do this is, first, because the American people will (or could) rally behind a visionary program in a way that they never will get behind the dour mechanics of carbon pricing. Second, because the way to get to a carbon tax is to use it as a financing mechanism for such a plan. Third, because oil and gas are in our bloodstream; as Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute, puts it, "The only thing that's going to drive fossil fuels off the market is cheaper renewable energy." Fourth, the United States cannot afford to miss out on the gigantic market for green technology.

Finally, there's leverage. China and India may not do something sensible but painful, like  adopting carbon pricing, because the United States does so, but they will adopt new technologies if the U.S. can prove that they work without harming economic growth. Developing countries have already made major investments in reducing air pollution, halting deforestation, and practicing sustainable agriculture; they're just too modest. It is here, above all, that the United States can serve as a demonstration model -- the world's most egregious carbon consumer showing the way to a low-carbon future. 

Global warming-denial is finally on the way out. Three-quarters of Americans now say  they believe in global warming, and more than half believe that humans are causing it and want to see a U.S. president take action. President Obama doesn't have to do the impossible. He must, however, do the possible.        

David McNew/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Extrication Negotiations

The United States is ready to start talking to the Taliban about a peace deal again. But nothing's going to happen without Pakistan.

Earlier this week, I talked to Salahuddin Rabbani, head of Afghanistan's High Peace Council. Rabbani was in Washington to brief administration officials on talks he had just held in Islamabad with Pakistani leaders. Rabbani had asked the Pakistanis to release four senior Taliban officials whom they had imprisoned, apparently for the crime of holding peace talks without Islamabad's approval. Security officials had released one of them, as well as nine lower-level figures. Afterwards, Gen. Ashraf Kayani, Pakistani's military chief of staff and ultimate authority on national security issues, had flown to Kabul to conduct further talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Rabbani told me that he was "cautiously optimistic" that the Pakistanis had decided to stop obstructing negotiations.

If this is as meaningful as Rabbani hopes, it would be very welcome news for President Barack Obama, who is ardently hoping to leave behind the messes he inherited in the Islamic world in order to get on with the forward-looking business of pivoting to Asia, promoting climate change, signing free-trade agreements, and so on. He has already completed Phase One of this act of strategic extrication by removing American troops from Iraq. Phase Two will be completed by the end of 2014, when American and NATO troops will end their combat mission in Afghanistan. Obama and his team are now deciding just how quickly those troops should leave, and how many should be left behind in order to train and support Afghan forces and to carry out counterterrorism missions. No matter what the outcome of that debate, Obama's hopes may rest on Pakistan's calculations -- and the Taliban's.

Karzai established the High Peace Council two years ago, with the goal of reaching out to current and former militant leaders. He appointed Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former jihadi leader and president of Afghanistan, as its first chairman. In September 2011, at a time when elements of the Taliban had begun talking to to American envoys in Germany and Qatar, Rabbani was assassinated by a suicide bomber, presumably dispatched by hard-line elements seeking to sabotage the nascent talks. This past April, Karzai chose Rabbani's 41-year-old son, Salahuddin, then serving as ambassador to Turkey, to replace his father. Salahuddin, a bespectacled, soft-spoken, Westernized figure, is new to this brutal game; when we met at his hotel in Washington, he asked if I was the same James Traub who had taught his class at Columbia's School of International Public Affairs in 2008. (I was.)

Rabbani and his colleagues have had informal contacts with a range of current and former Taliban figures, and he says that he is convinced that most want to stop fighting. "The reports we have are that the Taliban leadership is now discussing the logic of continuing the military campaign," he says. Once the United States and Afghanistan signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement last May pledging a long-term U.S. role, including an ongoing military presence, Rabbani says, the Taliban concluded that they could no longer wait for the end of 2014 and then march on Kabul. Of course, that may be over-optimistic. The fighting in Afghanistan shows no signs of abating. Mullah Omar, the leader of the so-called Quetta Shura, may not bless such talks. Hardline or rogue factions, like the Haqqanis, may undermine any effort at negotiations. But it's a proposition that has to be tested. And this requires U.S. and, of course, Pakistani support.

Meanwhile, White House policy on Afghanistan has given far more emphasis to winning battlefield victories in order to force the Taliban to negotiate from a position of weakness than to ending hostilities through negotiations. U.S. talks with the Taliban ended last March when the Taliban walked out, claiming that Washington kept changing its position. U.S. diplomats, working with officials in Qatar, have tried to work out a deal to release five militants from Guantanamo in exchange for an American soldier believed to be held in Pakistan. U.S. officials made a new offer in June, and they are still waiting to hear a response from the Taliban. One figure involved with administration policy in the region says that, since the U.S. election, White House officials seem to have embraced the need for a political end-game. This may in turn effect the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban. American diplomats, says this figure, "may actually take yes for an answer." Rabbani says that he received unequivocal support for his efforts from American officials. 

The real wild card is Islamabad. In 2010, Pakistani forces arrested Mullah Baradar, the Taliban's second-in-command, who had begun exploring talks with Afghans. That sent an unmistakable message: Negotiations will go forward only on Pakistan's terms. Pakistani intelligence still has deep ties with the Afghan Taliban, and wants to ensure that the country retains its influence in any reconfigured Afghanistan. Pakistan has a long history of pulling out the rug from negotiations, and this could prove to be yet another feint, designed to buy time until the battlefield odds became more favorable to the Taliban. But maybe it's not. The Taliban has become almost as dire a menace to Pakistan as it is to Afghanistan; and Kayani is said to have recognized that the country's economy is in disastrous condition. Warming relations with India may also have blunted Pakistani paranoia about Indian ambitions in Central Asia.

Rabbani said that Pakistan has promised to release Mullah Baradar and the other two detainees; he is now waiting to see if they make good. Pakistani officials also vowed to sign a joint statement asking the United Nations to remove several key figures from a list of terrorists, and to permit them to travel outside the country for talks. Preliminary discussions might then take place in Doha. Any eventual deal would almost certainly involve a power-sharing arrangement which could give the Taliban political control over portions of the country's south and east, as well as impunity for the militants. That would be ugly -- especially for any woman in Taliban-dominated regions -- but it's a deal I think the United States could live with. And it would give the government in Kabul the time and breathing space to slowly extend its authority and -- who knows? -- maybe even deepen its legitimacy.

And if it all falls apart? A senior U.S. government official I spoke to insisted that Afghanistan is making a transition, however haltingly, towards economic self-sufficiency, while the Afghan Army's "capacity to fight and defend their country seems increasingly provable." Though he hopes for an Afghan-led peace deal, he says, the country should remain "politically intact" even without one. But American optimism on Afghanistan has proved to be misplaced time and time again. The effort to bring "good governance" to Afghans in Kabul and in key provinces has largely failed -- which is one reason why the Taliban could reasonably believe that they will win in the long run. A report published over the summer by the Center for Strategic and International Studies predicts that "even under optimistic conditions, insurgents will dominate important areas in the east and south, and islands in other parts of the country."

If that's true, then the argument for some kind of political deal which recognizes this reality is all the stronger. (The CSIS report asserts that this will never happen.) The American imperial venture in Afghanistan has largely failed. The nation-building effort has come to grief -- not because such things are inherently impossible, but because habits and institutions develop over generations, not months. Afghan reality has proved to be far more refractory than America's military and civilian planners ever understood. It has been a very expensive, and very painful, learning process.