U.S. Takes Embarrassing Climate Policy Center Stage

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I’m copying below the full statement of Acting Ambassador Alejandro Wolff to the Security Council on climate change as a security risk.
The foundational elements of Wolff’s statement are not new, but their inanity never ceases to make my jaw drop. They are usually repeated loyally by Harlan Watson, the chief U.S. negotiator at the UN Framework Conventoin on Climate Change who is currently serving at the request of oil giants. I’ve become used to hearing Watson make some of the more outrageous arguments, but hearing a respected, serious diplomat like Wolff promote them on the world’s most prominent diplomatic stage is a step up (er, down) from the usual.
Here’s an example of the outrageous arguments: at the Foreign Service Institute, young Foreign Service Officers in training learn to avoid discussing the levels or growth rates of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, they are instructed to discuss U.S. “greenhouse gas intensity,” the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions to economic output (GDP) – as if somehow the ice caps melt less quickly because they know our economy is growing.
If one could quantify the economic cost of each ton of greenhouse gas emissions and factor it into our economic figures, “greenhouse gas intensity” might be a useful indicator. Since we don’t currently do that, the next president needs to remove the term from our diplomatic lexicon immediately. It’s insulting to the people who will suffer most from global warming and makes a mockery of economic and scientific principles at the same time.
What’s generally offensive about Wolff’s statement is its implication that the U.S. takes global warming seriously and is leading the effort to curb it, even as the Bush administration tries to undermine scientific consensus internationally and silences its experts domestically.
The security implications of climate change have gotten a lot of play recently. I won’t weigh in just yet except to say that I think they are considerable. For now, the spotlight remains on Wolff’s if-it-weren’t-so-awful-it-would-be-laughable statement, which can be found below the fold.
— Scott Paul

USUN PRESS RELEASE # 087(07) April 17, 2007
As Delivered
Remarks by Ambassador Alejandro D. Wolff, Acting U.S. Permanent Representative, in the UN Security Council Open Debate on Energy, Security and Climate, April 17, 2007
Madame President.
Climate change clearly presents serious challenges.
Under the able presidency of the United Kingdom in Gleneagles two years ago, G8 leaders emphasized that energy security, climate change and sustainable development are fundamentally linked.
In consultation with our developing country partners, G8 leaders committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve the global environment, and enhance energy security in ways that promote human development.
To achieve these goals, the United States is pursuing a wide range of activities and programs. For example:
We are working with Brazil to advance biofuels.
We facilitated an agreement with China to install the largest coalmine methane power facility in the world.
Through the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate, we are expanding investment and trade in cleaner energy technologies.
We are leading global efforts for the commercial deployment of near-zero-emissions coal technology through $1.65 billion in tax credits.
The U.S. Energy Policy Act authorizes $5 billion over five years in tax incentives to encourage private investments in energy efficiency and alternative renewable energy.
We dedicate about $180 million a year to promote adaptation to climate variability and change and to other climate change priority areas in developing countries.
At home, we are on track to meet our goal of reducing our economy’s greenhouse gas intensity by 18% from 2002 to 2012.
U.S. Greenhouse gas emissions increased only .6% between 2004 and 2005, compared with a 1% increase over the 1990-2005 period.
We have invested some $35 billion in climate-related science and technology since 2001, including over $17 billion in energy technologies.
Internationally, climate and energy issues are being actively addressed through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and other venues with appropriate mandates.
The Bush Administration has pledged $500 million to the Global Environmental Facility over the next four years. This is the largest contribution of any country, to help developing countries address these problems.
These efforts matter – including because a lack of energy security can exacerbate economic and political problems.
The most effective way to bolster security and stability is to increase the capacity of states to govern effectively. States that govern effectively can better anticipate and manage change and the challenges that come with change.
Successful development strategies focus on education, rule of law, human freedom and economic opportunity. The international community joined together in recognizing this at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.
Well-governed countries grow and prosper. Economic growth provides the resources, in both developed and developing countries, to address energy and environmental challenges, including challenges associated with climate change.
Madame President, the United States has a long history of extending a helping hand so that people can live in democratic societies with robust economies and strong and stable governance. We intend to continue that support, working with freedom-loving people everywhere to face the future constructively with confidence and determination.
Thank you.

Comments

12 comments on “U.S. Takes Embarrassing Climate Policy Center Stage

  1. Pissed Off American says:

    McCain began his answer by changing the words to a popular BEACH BOYS song.
    “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran,” he sang to the tune of Barbara Ann.
    Posted by steve duncan
    OMG! It was true! Saddam DID have drone aircraft with chemical sprayers stationed offshore, and they have finally been deployed to DC, where they have dispursed a deadly cloud of “Nutso Gas” on our nation’s capital buildings.

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  2. steve duncan says:

    I know this is off topic but read the following. Is McCain effing nuts or what?
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Sen. John McCain brought his “Straight Talk” tour to South Carolina Wednesday morning.
    The presidential hopeful spent 90 minutes talking to nearly 500 people who crammed into the Murrells Inlet VFW Hall.
    At the campaign rally, McCain was asked if an attack on Iran is in the works, the GEORGETOWN TIMES reports.
    McCain began his answer by changing the words to a popular BEACH BOYS song.
    “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran,” he sang to the tune of Barbara Ann.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    If Obama or Clinton pulled a stunt like this Brit Hume and the rest of the Wingnut Wurlitzer (despite agreeing with the little ditty) would be in full blown snarky uproar.

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  3. Jim Ramsey says:

    So the fundamental problem with greenhouse gas intensity measure is that we kill ourselves and everyone else but very efficiently.

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  4. Carroll says:

    Er….could we just simplify all this by saying the “Pay to Poison” approach won’t work. No one is going to give a damn about economic output when they can’t breath or find a stable piece of land to stand on.

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  5. Dan Kervick says:

    Scott,
    I think that appealing to the concept of greenhouse gas intensity might in some cases help us conceptualize certain problems and options, even if we do not have any accurate way of quantifying the economic costs of greenhouse gas emissions.
    One problem with the current US debate, as I see it, is that very few people at the national policy and political level, even those who are generally progressive on global climate and environmental issues, have been willing to speak bluntly and directly about the options facing us as a global people, and about where our national policies might fit into those options. This prevents the public from forming clear and easily articulated conceptions of the sorts of goals at which we could or should aim.
    Many have simply not grasped the fact that even if we develop much greener methods of producing our economic output, it may still very well be the case that so long as that total output continues to grow, greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow. And over the long term the global climate probably cannot be sustained with continuously growing greenhouse gas emissions.
    These reflections suggest that at some point we need to achieve a stable, flat rate of annual global greenhouse gas emissions, a rate which the globe can process and recycle carbon emissions into oxygen in a way which prevents overall climate change. (That’s assuming that we are able to halt other kinds of environmental degradation, including depletion of the world’s rain forests. If not, then even achieving a flat rate of greenhouse gas emissions will not be adequate to solve the problem.)
    So as far as I can tell, there are only three plausible long-term human options:
    1. A zero growth, sustainable global economy, in which the means and techniques of production, and the total annual greenhouse gas emissions remain fixed, year after year, at an acceptable level.
    2. Sustained global economic growth accompanied by sustained global greenhouse gas intensity reductions that together yield a net flat rate of global greenhouse gas emissions.
    3. Some series of technological fixes (“CO2 nanoscrubbers” or whatever) that allow for continuously increasing greenhouse gas emissions along with continuously increasing global greenhouse gas recycling capability.
    I think that option 2 is for many the most likely, realistic and acceptable long-term approach. The moral of that option is that if we want to keep growing our economy, we need to keep lowering the amount of greenhouse gases emitted per dollar of product generated. And that’s just another way of saying we need to aim at continuous reductions in greenhouse gas intensity. This is a simple logical point we can make without any further dollar quantification of the costs of emissions.
    Suppose in some possible future we have achieved an acceptable and stable rate of carbon gas emissions. It might still be the case in that future that different countries have different greenhouse gas intensities. At that point, appeal to national greenhouse gas intensities will be *one* way to assess whether the costs of sustaining an acceptably low, stable rate of carbon emissions are being fairly born. If China is producing 1/10th of the world’s total economic product at that time, it would be fair to expect it to be producing about 1/10th of the global greenhouse gas emissions. If its greenhouse gas intensity is higher than the global average, and its percentage of global emissions is greater than 10%, then other facts of production being equal we will be able to say China is not doing a good enough job, and is free-riding on the lower greenhouse gas intensities of other countries.
    Or suppose we at some point negotiate a global regime of across the board greenhouse gas reduction targets, accompanied by periodic assessment, recommendations and sanctions to enforce the agreement. Suppose some particular county’s emissions continue to climb, or are not falling fast enough. There will be two possible problems that might account for this failure: Is the problem that the country is not doing a good enough job in reducing its greenhouse gas intensity? Or is the problem that its economy is growing too fast, so that even though its greenhouse gas intensity continues to drop, its total emissions continue to rise? Each of these could be the explanation, and it would be good for people to develop the vocabulary for discussing these issues, and conceptually distinguishing different problems.

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  6. Scott Paul says:

    Dan, thanks for the clarification on greenhouse gas intensity. I need to be less lazy with my language. It is, as you say, the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions to economic output (GDP) – not economic growth. If you don’t mind, I’m going to correct the post now to reflect the correct definition.
    However, so long as economic output figures fail to reflect the true economic costs of emissions – and I don’t expect anyone to adopt a so-called “Green GDP” anytime soon – the use of the term “greenhouse gas intensity” should be left out of the policy debate.

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  7. Dan Kervick says:

    I hate to have to play devil’s advocate here, because I agree with Scott that the US diplomatic position on climate change and greenhouse gases is deeply flawed, and its leadership on the issue has been woeful. But I think the initial post and several of the comments either misrepresent or misinterpret the US position. If we are going to argue against some position, we should at least have a clear idea about what it is. I will first lay out that position, as I understand it, and then move on to criticisms.
    First, “greenhouse gas intensity” is not the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions to economic growth, as Scott suggests, but the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions to total economic output (GDP). This is significant, both for understanding the US argument and for criticizing it effectively.
    Greenhouse gas intensity, as I understand it, is supposed to be a sort of measure of the efficiency or inefficiency, and cleanliness, of a nation’s “economic engine”, and is used in US diplomacy as an implicit argument for burden shifting.
    The idea is that if one economy is producing an amount X of greenhouse gases with an economy of size Y, while a second country produces an amount 2X of greenhouse gases, with an economy of size 10Y, then the first country is operating, so to speak, a much dirtier and more inefficient economic engine, and has a greenhouse gas intensity that is five times greater than that of the second country. The greenhouse gas intensity of the first county is X/Y, while the greenhouse gas intensity of the second country is .2X/Y.
    To make this more concrete, suppose some local steel mill has been outfitted with state-of-the-art pollution control devices, and puts out 100,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases, while producing 1,000,000 metric tons of steel. Suppose another plant puts out 50,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases, while producing 100,000 metric tons of steel. Which plant is the “worse offender” in terms of greenhouse gas emissions? The operators of the first plant would clearly argue that it is the second plant, because while the first plant is indeed producing twice the volume of greenhouse gases, it is at the same time delivering 10 times as much steel to consumers. They therefore have a plausible argument in saying “before you regulators focus on us, you should first focus on all of those smaller, but much dirtier plants, and get them to clean up their acts.”
    The analogous position at the diplomatic level is to argue that while some of the more developed countries may be producing a lot more greenhouse gases, they are also producing a much, much higher percentage of the world’s total economic output, and that the most urgent problem to address is the “dirtier” and less efficient production of many lower-output countries.
    Since Wolff, in his statement, is implicitly comparing ratios rather than aggregate amounts, then comparing periods of different length can be appropriate. Thus, noting that he compares a 15 year period to a recent one-year period is not *in itself* a adequate criticism. To consider an analogy, if someone pointed out that the infant mortality rate of country X was 3 deaths per thousand over the thirty year period 1977-2006, but was only 2 deaths per thousand during the final two years of that period, 2005 and 2006, and that on that basis it looks like infant mortality in country X is improving, then I don’t think that it would be fair to criticize the speaker merely for comparing 30 years to 2 years, since that is precisely the point. Of course, there may be *other* reasons for criticism, and these two scant statistics may be hiding other more relevant ones – such as, if country X’s infant mortality had declined to 1.5 per thousand between 2000 and 2006, so the 2 per thousand rate in the final two years actually represents an increase. But the comparison of a long period with a recent short period is not in itself objectionable. Similarly, it is not in itself objectionable or without merit to point out that the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions to economic output has declined is lower in recent years than it has been over a longer 15 year span. (Reducing that ratio, I will argue, is not *enough*, but it is still something that is worthwhile in itself, and the statistic is not confused or meaningless.)
    Nor can I agree with Scott that greenhouse gas intensity is not a useful indicator. It is *one* useful indicator that can be appealed to in interesting and evidentially significant ways in arguments about climate change and global policies for addressing it. The problem is that it is only *one* useful indicator, and will not bear the weight Wolff and the current US government seem to want to place on it.
    Now, here are the real problems with the US position:
    First, consider the following table:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_ratio_of_GDP_to_carbon_dioxide_emissions
    This table shows “carbon intensity”. Carbon intesity is roughly the reciprocal of “greenhouse gas intensity”. That is, it is the ratio of GDP to emisssions, rather than emissions to GDP. Thuse it is better to have a *higher* carbon intensity, wheras it is better to have a *lower* greenhouse gas intensity. The Unites States shows up as number 39 on the list, far below almost every other developed country. Thus, if the US is trying to argue that it is doing a good job in holding down its greenhouse gas emissions, the argument is not very strong. It does have a good case to make against a country like China, which is much worse. But most of the US’s highly-developed peers are doing a much better job.
    The second, and much more important, problem with the US argument is that while political reforms and economic modernization, efficiency and regulation in smaller, low-output economies might be successful in producing a more favorable global greenhouse gas *intensity*, these changes will also produce more economic growth and higher GDP’s and will result in a net *increase* in greenhouse gases. The fundamental fact is that greenhouse gas emissions are an *urgent global problem*, and it is not enough to reduce those emissions only as a percentage of global economic output. It is essential that we begin to reduce the *aggregate amount* of greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere. To do that, one must go right to the economies and sources that show the greatest potential for effecting a substantial change in the global picture. We must identify the major national sources of greenhouse gases emissions, without regard to emission intensity, and get those countries to push their pollution output sharply and dramatically downward, as quickly as possible.
    Suppose the world’s economic output will grow by 25% over a period of X years, and that during that same time we hope to cut aggregate greenhouse gas emissions in half. Then the *global* greenhouse gas intensity at the end of that period of time will have to be 40% of what it is today. We are not going to be able to make that kind of change by working around the edges of the global economy, reducing greenhouse gas intensities here and there, in a huge number of low-output economies, with all the political and economic transformations such changes will require. Rather we must go right to the high-output, high aggregate emissions economies. These are the countries with well-developed political systems and high levels of economic and social organization, and the places that offer the most promise of making a major positive impact on climate issues, in a relatively short amount of time. They are, in effect, the “big prizes” in the global race against the clock to arrest climate change.

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  8. Pissed Off American says:

    Oops, sorry “Gene Ha”, I didn’t read the posts before I commented.

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  9. Pissed Off American says:

    “U.S. Greenhouse gas emissions increased only .6% between 2004 and 2005, compared with a 1% increase over the 1990-2005 period.”
    This piece of shit must think he is addressing a gaggle of drooling idiots. Using his figures, quoted above, comparing a one year bloc of time against a fifteen year bloc of time……
    Well, you get my point.

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  10. Pissed Off American says:

    “U.S. Greenhouse gas emissions increased only .6% between 2004 and 2005, compared with a 1% increase over the 1990-2005 period.”
    This piece of shit must think he is addressing a gaggle of drooling idiots. Using his figures, quoted above, comparing a one year bloc of time against a fifteen year bloc of time……
    Well, you get my point.

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  11. Carroll says:

    If there are two words I am sick of they are “productivity” and “growth”.
    Capitalism has become a Frankenstein monster…thanks to all our mindless productivity and growth cannibals.

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  12. Gene Ha says:

    Wow. Here’s my favorite bit on first reading:
    “U.S. Greenhouse gas emissions increased only .6% between 2004 and 2005, compared with a 1% increase over the 1990-2005 period.”
    Comparing a one year period against a 15 year period. If we continue at .6% increase for the same period, that’ll be just under a 9% increase by 2019! I hope that was just bad phrasing and he meant a 1% annual increase.

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