The New York Times

December 28, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

Acting Alone on Climate Change


SYDNEY — This was a good, if distant, vantage point to view the proceedings in Copenhagen. Good because Australia has one of the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world and has been suffering from an extended drought, probably related to global warming.

Good, too, because, despite those unpleasant facts just days before Copenhagen, the Australian Senate rejected an ambitious emission-trading scheme designed to cut pollution by making emitters pay. Its vote on Dec. 2 proved a fitting precursor to Copenhagen.

The Australian example shows vividly how no amount of horse-trading between developed and developing countries at international summit meetings is going to have much of an impact without prior leadership by wealthy countries at the national level. This is not a moral issue but a practical one, which takes account both of the technical and management capability of advanced countries and the political realities of a world that likes to divide itself into simple “developed” and “developing” categories.

It is legitimate to accuse China, India and others of being deliberately obstructive to show off their political muscle, even while they acknowledge the necessity of reductions in carbon emissions. But it does no good at all when advanced democracies are incapable for domestic political reasons of taking decisive unilateral action. In the Australian case, public opinion appears to agree that climate change is a real threat and that emissions-trading is an acceptable way to tackle it. But the legislation has been thwarted by a coalition of opponents — climate-change skeptics, greens who think too much has been surrendered to local coal interests, and others who believe the trading scheme is technically flawed.

If Australia cannot get legislation through its relatively simple political process, what hope is there in the United States, where climate change sceptics are more numerous and where Senate filibusters so easily thwart the majority?

Yet if the United States was seen to be taking a lead on facing climate change, there is almost no doubt that rich countries like Australia, which are accustomed to and often rely upon American leadership, would fall into line very quickly while poorer ones would gradually follow. The Copenhagen conference showed that no amount of good example from Europe and Japan in setting emission and energy reduction targets made much of an impact. The fact is that, on this issue, the United States is currently incapable of offering the political leadership that would shame other nations into greater efforts and enable America’s technological prowess to be fully harnessed to emission-reduction goals.

That is not to point the finger at the United States, but merely to acknowledge that only America’s example can confront the mix of hypocrisy and arrogance shown by China — arrogance that Beijing cannot submit to a regime to supervise compliance with any agreement, hypocrisy in that China’s promise of a big reduction in the ratio of emissions to national income requires almost no effort.

In the medium term, China may in fact make huge progress in achieving the emissions cuts urged by its scientists and many senior officials. But the country will be driven by a mix of self-interest in addressing its local environmental problems and the self-esteem that comes with using the latest technology, not by international agreements.

China’s environmental needs may well be thwarted by profit-focused state enterprises and corrupt local party bosses. But awareness of national self-interest in reducing emissions and relying on clean energy sources is the key to progress. China arguably is already making considerable effort with wind and nuclear power to reduce its dependence on coal. Meanwhile, Australia’s reliance on coal continues and the vast solar and wind potential of its huge landmass remain unexploited.

At the international level, the emission issue should be compared with trade. Forty years of trade liberalization came about not so much because of periodic big steps like the Uruguay and Kennedy rounds of tariff cuts. Most cuts were the result of unilateral decisions by governments which believed that liberalization was in their best interest, whether or not others reciprocated. Unilateral action, not horse-trading, must become the guiding principle of emission cuts. Only then can formal pacts carry enough weight to be useful.