Drinking the green Kool-Aid at a Warsaw intermission

Environmentalists pin too much on international talks, setting themselves up for failure. As the US and China are showing, it's the domestic arenas that matter most.

Well, another annual United Nations climate conference has been and gone and which nearly broke down over whether countries would make “commitments” or “contributions” to reducing emissions under an agreement to be settled by 2015.  Yes, that’s right, we had a conference where no country actually put any hard emission reduction pledges forward, but we still had a heated disagreement over the choice of a word to describe a country’s pledge to reduce its emissions. 

But apparently by 2015 everyone will have put this behind us and will sign onto an agreement that will contain legally binding emission reduction “contributions” from more than a hundred countries which will save the world from dangerous climate change. And, of course, the United States Congress, including the required two-thirds of senators, will vote in favour of an agreement where it will submit itself to be penalised by the United Nations for emitting carbon emissions above its agreed target.

Can we please stop fantasising that such a thing is possible!

The environmental movement is doing itself a disservice by continuing to hold out hopes that such an agreement is possible. They are giving opponents of action on climate change the ultimate smokescreen tool to stall meaningful action.

Those who would prefer we did nothing to contain carbon emissions love the concept that the solution to climate change lies in all countries signing onto a legally-binding global agreement to limit emissions. They love it because they know it will never happen. 

What they don’t like is individual national governments deciding to put a cap or price on their own carbon emissions. That’s because this actually has some hope of being implemented and effectively reducing fossil fuel usage. So whether they be in Canada, the US, Poland or Australia, they point at international negotiations and say until all countries reach a binding agreement, any single country should do nothing. The argument being that a price on carbon will severely undermine international competitiveness leading to an exodus of industry and jobs while emissions will simply be transferred somewhere else. This has been completely debunked by a range of econometric studies across several countries, but the argument remains dominant.

Consider what happened with the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen. Anyone with half a sense of realistic proportion and a knowledge of US politics would have known that it couldn’t deliver a major breakthrough, well before it started. Obama may be the US president but the president doesn’t control the Congress. Until Obama had managed to pass domestic emissions cap and trade legislation through the Congress he had virtually no ability to make concrete commitments about what the US could or couldn’t deliver. Al Gore made commitments under the first Kyoto Protocol, only to find them rejected unanimously by the Senate (the Byrd-Hagel resolution).

Yet because the conference had been built up by the environmental movement as the breakthrough moment, the inevitably meek outcome was seen as a monumental failure. This was like manna from heaven to the fossil fuel lobby, and those ideologically opposed to carbon emission constraints.

Indeed, Tony Abbott’s ascension to Australian prime ministership was built upon Liberal Party powerbroker Nick Minchin’s argument that the Coalition should not agree to passing an emissions trading scheme until an international agreement to constrain emissions had been finalised. Minchin, who sees human-induced climate change as a leftist fabrication, argued such a position knowing a meaningful agreement would not materialise at Copenhagen.

Yet if we shift our gaze to what really matters – domestic policy – Obama (with the help of some progressive state governments) is managing to deliver on the targets he laid down at Copenhagen (and not just because of shale gas). And China is also showing signs of progress on its promises. Both countries are willing to take action via domestic instruments that they would never agree to if imposed via international law, because their populations are too fiercely proud and independent.

So why does the environmental movement continue to shoot itself in the foot?

It’s because international negotiations are extremely useful at shining a media spotlight on countries inadequate efforts to address global warming. However, it is a double-edged sword and the environmental movement has cut itself badly overplaying the importance of such negotiations.