The Most Significant Barrier to a Climate Agreement in Paris

In a couple of months, political representatives from around the world will be meeting in Paris for the purpose of negotiating an international climate treaty.  This has been designed to build a climate “framework for the next century.”

Paris in Spring
Paris in Spring

Count me as skeptical that anything substantive will be accomplished.

Countries Will Continue to be Self-Interested

The key issue I see that stands in the way of a climate agreement is that each country is self-interested.  As a result, each will want others to show that they are serious before they take steps.  In order to induce an agreement, therefore, the negotiators must cut back on negative consequences of failure to meet the compliance goals.  This means that each country can state a projected goal – what is being termed as a “pledge” – and decline to allow any penalty for failure to meet this goal.

Kyoto is a classic example of this. Each country in negotiations decided to name its own individual commitments.  These commitments were not tied to the performance of anybody else.  Thus Australia could pledge to reduce greenhouse gases by a certain amount.  Should Australia fail to reduce those gases, well, so what?

The Kyoto Protocol also had other issues.  The Kyoto Protocol had no consequences for failure to comply.  Kyoto actually had an amendment process provided for binding consequences, but ratification of consequences would require 3/4 of Kyoto parties to ratify those consequences.  It hasn’t happened.  The Kyoto Protocol because nothing more than a statement of political ambition without an enforcement mechanism.  I find it likelier that if an agreement occurs, it will be a “framework” without an enforcement mechanism.

Countries Will Either Agree to Lofty Goals with No Enforcement, or Weak Goals with Strong Enforcement

Another possibility is that there will be an agreed upon framework with enforceable penalties.  Should this happen, the pledges will be minimal.  Because each country is self-interested, there is little inducement for creating lofty goals.  The loftier the goal, the less will be the agreed upon penalty for failing to make it.  Should penalties and enforcement mechanisms be stringent, then there is little inducement for the self-interested nation to set a lofty goal.  It would be a prescription for self-punishment.

Despite the Pubic Image, the Benefits of a Climate Agreement are Qualified and Costs are Quantified

This is a recipe for non-agreement.  The costs of failing to comply with an agreement are pretty easily seen.  They are real and not notional.  But what are the benefits?

What are the costs of switching from fossil fuels?  We can see that.  What are the benefits of switching to renewable or carbon neutral fuels?  We can see that.  What about climate change?

We hear that climate change will make things worse.  Okay.  Like what?  Stronger hurricanes?  What does that mean?  Worse droughts?  Worse flooding?  Climate more unstable? The benefits being discussed are not easily quantifiable and become largely rhetorical.

An Agreement is Not Scientific – This Conference is Political

Consider what an Agreement with lofty goals and a strict enforcement mechanism will entail.  While there will no doubt be many benefits (venture capitalists would be wise to invest in green technologies, for there will be potentially tens of trillions of dollars to be made in the coming decades), the global benefits will be both uncertain, diffuse and pushed to the future.

This is the antithesis of modern democratic government.  It is practically an axiom of political spending, that the benefit should be focused while the costs should be spread out, preferably with the costs to be realized far into the future.  This would be the opposite: the benefit will be spread out into the future while costs will be paid up front.  The benefits will be qualified and the costs will be quantified.  Politics hasn’t worked like this in democracies for a very long time.

The political squabbling and lack of unified objective benefit will, I believe, doom the Paris conference to a symbolic gesture.


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