Former President Clinton has opened the 3rd annual Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) after a stunning procession of world leaders entered the room to music reminiscent of a James Horner sound track.
In his opening remarks and introductions, Clinton called up Florida Republican Governor Charlie Crist to announce an new solar power initiative by Florida Power and Light to reduce the state’s carbon footprint and bring its carbon emissions down to 1990 levels by 2020. (Before announcing the initiative, Clinton took a moment to praise Gov. Crist’s recent move to reinstate the right to vote for former felons who have served their time and seek to assume the responsibilities of citizenship — a principled move that probably didn’t go over well with the RNC).
Energy and Climate Change will be an important theme of this conference with a number of plenaries exclusively devoted to the discussion of energy and climate change. The most famous and ardent proponent of efforts to seriously tackle climate change–former Vice President Al Gore– is here to pick up where he left off at the UN’s climate summit on Monday and push this agenda in a meaningful way. He’s actually featured in the opening plenary along with a number of global figures including Philippines President Gloria Arroyo, World Bank President Bob Zoellick, and Walmart CEO Lee Scott who have all been focusing on the questions of carbon markets and the developing world.
While CGI will try to advance the theme Al Gore has spearheaded, there are some real and disturbing questions that have been posed, which I hope some panelists will consider addressing, namely — is it too late?
Paul Saunders and Vaughan Turekian have published a provocative article in Foreign Policy, “Why Climate Change Can’t Be Stopped.” The authors suggest we need to begin hedging our bets and preparing to live in a world with climate change given both the pace of climate change, the history of inaction, and the enormity of the international collective action challenge at a time when global cooperation is treated as passe. They write:
New emissions limits in the United States and other major emitters such as Europe’s key economies and Japan may slow the processes driving these events. But the mounting scientific evidence, coupled along with economic and political realities, increasingly suggests that humanity’s opportunity to prevent, stop, or reverse the long-term impacts of climate change has slipped away. In fact, while greenhouse gas intensity (emissions per unit of gross domestic product) of both developed and developing economies has decreased significantly over the past decade as a result of greater efficiency measures, overall greenhouse gas emissions have nevertheless continued to rise. That’s because as economies grow, they consume more energy and produce more carbon dioxide. And, obviously, each country wants its own economy to grow.
Without a technological or economic miracle, it would take a political miracle to reach an international agreement that would mandate the necessary emissions cuts to reverse the momentum behind our evolving global climate system. But once again, realities get in the way. The U.S. Congress is too divided to pass legislation sufficiently tough to make a major difference. And although some hope that regional or state-level cap-and trade systems could sharply reduce U.S. emissions in the absence of federal action, this is also unlikely because states face many of the same problems that challenge national governments. First and foremost, any state that imposes emissions limits that are too tight in comparison with its neighbors’ are likely to simply export their emissions without it resulting in a major overall reduction.
The international political environment also makes truly significant emissions cuts very unlikely. In 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, developing countries will emit nearly 20 percent more CO2 emissions than developed countries. Indeed, only in China (and perhaps India) would emissions limits or cuts make more of a difference than in the United States. By one estimate, China has already surpassed America in emissions to become the world’s leader and, with sustained high growth rates, will open the gap even further. In fact, if China grows at 8 percent for the next nine years, its economy will double in size–and its greenhouse gas emissions can be expected roughly to double as well. Moreover, as China’s economy expands, it is turning increasingly to carbon-laden coal for electricity. And although China’s energy intensity (energy consumed per unit of economic output) has decreased by nearly 5 percent per year for the last two decades as a result of greater efficiency, it is still nearly seven times that of the United States, according to the World Bank. At this rate, China’s growth trajectory could add the equivalent pollution of another present-day United States to the climate system in a little more than a decade.
Dollar-for-dollar, the most efficient way to cut global greenhouse gas emissions would be, in theory, to invest hundreds of billions of dollars to improve China’s energy efficiency. But Congress would never support such an approach. After all, which members of Congress would vote to undercut the competitiveness of U.S. companies, especially in the face of a weak domestic economy, public anger over outsourcing, China’s currency value, and the U.S. trade deficit with China? More broadly, how long will voters in Europe and Japan, which have done the most to limit emissions, be prepared to make sacrifices for the global climate if they believe they are alone in doing so?
Recognize they do not propose we give up on the global challenge of climate change mitigation. Rather they want us to start designing complementary strategies to cope with all the contingencies — a plan B. Despite its bleak outlook, I find this fairly reasonable and persuasive line of argument. I’ll be curious to see if someone tries to respond to this argument in the coming days.
By the way, you can stay tuned at TWN for updates and commentary on CGI but you can also watch the live webcast.