Thursday, July 19, 2007

Pessimism about the prospects for GHG abatement

Perhaps, as Bill Barnes suggested yesterday, I am too pessimistic about the prospects for the collective action necessary to mitigate climate risk. When I try to find reasons for optimism, however, I usually can only come up with one, and that is that we actually don't need to get that many global actors to agree on a framework for abatement. In fact, just three actors--the U.S., the E.U., and China-- account for about half of all global emissions. You add in Russia, India and Japan, and you have almost two thirds of global emissions. In other words, you only need to get three to six actors to agree to a framework.

Of course, the barriers to such an agreement are vast. China and India are fervent about achieving economic growth at almost any cost, and seem insistent that any abatement framework take into account historical emissions, not just current ones. Why should they be forced to abate emissions just as they are embarking on the road to wealth, when the U.S. and the EU were allowed to pollute their way to greatness? The Russians, on the other hand, seem to hold the daft notion that climate change (which they seem to think equals some nice linear "warming") will actually be good for them.

But the biggest problem is probably here in the United States. Our people are so greedily materialistic, and our leaders so fecklessly beholden to the pettily venal interests of consumerism (both supply- and demand-side), that it seems hard to imagine how the U.S. will embrace any serious abatement program. Which politician is going to have the temerity to tell the American people they must live in smaller homes, drive smaller cars, live in more compact cities, and pay much higher prices for electricity? Can you imagine anyone getting elected on that basis? Just remember back a few years ago to this famous moment:
Not long ago, the Democratic-led Senate took up the issue of stricter fuel-efficiency standards, only to reject the idea. At one moment during the debate, the Senate Minority Leader, Trent Lott, exhibited a picture of a Smart car as if he were a lawyer prosecuting a multiple homicide. Pointing to the ultra-efficient and—necessarily—small automobile, which is popular in cities like Paris and Rome, he suggested that it would be an offense for anyone in the United States to consider driving one. "This is still America," he declared.
It is only with peril that one can dismiss such incidents as mere buffoonery.

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