Feature

Scrambling for a climate breakthrough

Delegates to Copenhagen were racing to conclude an agreement that would set new goals for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide.

What happened Delegates to the Copenhagen climate-change talks were racing this week to conclude an agreement that would set new goals for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide and create a mechanism for financing poorer countries’ efforts to combat global warming. As The Week went to press, negotiators from the U.S. and China remained far apart on emissions cuts and aid for developing countries, and some conference organizers voiced doubt that delegates could reach consensus before the arrival in Denmark of more than 100 heads of state, including President Obama, at week’s end. But Sen. John Kerry, during a brief midweek visit to the conference, expressed optimism that there were “the makings of a deal” that would bridge sharp differences among the industrialized West, fast-growing nations such as China and India, and smaller, poorer countries that scientists say will suffer most from climate change.

U.S. negotiators insisted they would not budge from Obama’s pledge to reduce U.S. emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and provide $1.3 billion in short-term aid. China wants the U.S. to set a stricter emissions target and commit more money, and has resisted demands that outside monitors be allowed to verify its own compliance with any agreement. Despite nearly collapsing several times, the two-week conference produced at least one major agreement: a deal to compensate developing nations for preserving forests, which are efficient absorbers of carbon dioxide, the primary culprit in global warming. While delegates verbally wrangled inside, protesters demanding a far-reaching climate pact clashed with police outside the hall, and hundreds were arrested.

What the editorials saidThis “overblown” spectacle isn’t even “about climate anymore,” said Investor’s Business Daily. Instead, it has devolved into a “shakedown” by developing nations, which are intent on “fitting a noose on the world’s productive economies and extracting wealth transfers.” That’s the primary reason the developing nations are attending the Copenhagen conference in the first place, said The Wall Street Journal. “They see climate change as a potential foreign-aid bonanza.”

Fortunately, the Obama administration sees climate change for what it is—an existential threat, said the San Jose Mercury News. While the focus has been on Copenhagen, the “most important development” actually took place in Washington, D.C., last week, when the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that greenhouse gases endanger public health. The ruling sent “a clear signal to polluters, to climate-change deniers, and to negotiators in Denmark,” that “America is ready to lead.”

What the columnists saidWhatever agreement emerges from Copenhagen will have little effect in the real world, said Richard Muller in The Wall Street Journal. Any pact will focus on reducing emissions from the U.S., Europe, and Japan. But most future emissions will come not from those countries but from fast-growing nations, especially China, where giant new coal-fired plants are coming online every day. Face it: In the not-too-distant future, “temperature will be at the mercy of the newly powerful economies.”

It’s not just temperatures that will be at China’s mercy, said Phil Kerpen and Dave Schwartz in the Baltimore Sun. Any agreement is bound to “put the U.S. at a huge competitive disadvantage.” Not only would U.S. taxpayers be on the hook for “staggering wealth transfers to the developing world,” but emissions cuts would send energy prices soaring and hamstring our economy. Do we want to sacrifice our way of life for the sake of alleviating a global temperature increase that may be just a statistical illusion?

“Reducing global warming almost certainly will carry a price tag for companies and households,” said Terrence Guay in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But the price of inaction—continuing on a path toward a global catastrophe of unimaginable proportions—is immeasurably higher. The fact is, we already trade off some economic growth for the sake of other “societal objectives.” Our economy would grow faster if we repealed child labor laws, for instance, but we choose not to put 8-year-olds to work. The climate emergency demands that we trade some of our wealth for the sake of our planet’s long-term survival. Surely, that’s not too high a price to pay.

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