Spotlight Durban: Climate stalemate in Durban: What can be done?

Frank Ackerman
Another in a Triple Crisis and Real Climate Economics Blog series on the Durban Climate Change Conference.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the world is again conferring about what to do about climate change, and again deciding to do very little. If it wasn’t so serious, it would be funny. The satirical publication The Onion greeted the COP17 conference in Durban, South Africa by announcing the release of a new report showing that global warming may be irreversible if no action is taken to prevent it before 2006; in an example of fair and balanced reporting, they also interviewed a critic who put the point of no return as late as 2010.

The real debate in Durban seems less realistic than The Onion’s satire. Should the Kyoto Protocol, currently scheduled to expire next year, be extended or replaced by a better agreement to limit emissions? Will the promised $100 billion funding for climate adaptation – let alone the larger sums that will actually be needed – somehow materialize? Or should we just agree to keep talking?

While others are not blameless, the United States is the leader of the do-nothings, the country whose inaction ensures a global climate stalemate. As long as the world’s largest economy, with the largest cumulative emissions and the greatest resources to tackle the climate crisis, refuses to act, others are not likely to move forward on their own. Yet there is not a snowball’s chance in Texas that any significant climate policy will survive the current U.S. Congress.

Thus the global failure to protect the earth’s climate can be traced back to the dysfunctional state of American politics. With the Republicans increasingly committed to science denial and the Democrats unable or unwilling to challenge them, climate policy is going nowhere.

What can be done to break through this deadlock? Two recent comments provide a helpful frame for the debate, identifying what will be needed.

First, it has become fashionable to claim that talking directly about climate change isn’t necessary, since we can achieve the same goals by supporting energy research and development, green jobs, competitiveness, or energy security. David Roberts explains on Grist why this strategy cannot work: the climate crisis is much too urgent and extreme to sneak up on it without disturbing anyone; a massive, frontal attack on the problem, with a mobilization of resources comparable to wartime, is needed to avoid devastating climate change.

An outline for that mobilization against climate change is provided by Naomi Klein in The Nation. After attending a Heartland Institute climate-denial conference, Klein concludes that the Tea Party denialists, dead wrong on climate science, are right about the political economy of climate policy: solving the problem would require fundamental changes in capitalism-as-usual. She sees the need to go beyond the current free market ideology in multiple arenas with big-ticket public sector investments in emission-reducing infrastructure; planning for changes in energy use, farming practices, and employment patterns; elimination of dirty-energy subsidies and reinvigoration of environmental regulation; and “taxing the rich and filthy” to pay for it all.

That may not amount to socialism, but it’s several giant steps to the left of American politics, with an active role for government in leading and shaping the economy – perhaps comparable to the high points of Scandinavian social democracy. While it’s a tall order, it’s more plausible than some counter-proposals from Klein’s critics. For example, Environmental Defense Fund economist Gernot Wagner claims that the market can protect the climate if we just put a price on carbon emissions, citing prices as low as $20 per ton of carbon dioxide. That low estimate comes from a U.S. government task force report, which applied a conventional economic analysis that minimized uncertainties and worst-case risks. In a re-analysis of the government calculations, including key climate uncertainties, Liz Stanton and I found that the damages could range up to more than $800 per ton of carbon dioxide. But adoption of a price that high is at least as hard to imagine as Klein’s activist agenda.

I would quarrel with Klein’s analysis only in its emphasis on reducing long-haul transport, and on finding alternatives to growth for developed countries. Only air transport, which is rare for freight, imposes intolerable environmental burdens. And while alternatives to growth will be needed in the long run, it is politically suicidal to advocate this until there is substantial progress towards income equality and economic security.

Meanwhile, it is urgent to get started. As The Onion said last year, “climate change, the popular mid-2000s issue that raised awareness of the fact that the earth’s continuous rise in temperature will have catastrophic ecological effects, has apparently not been resolved, and may still be a problem.” Indeed, the problem doesn’t get smaller if we deny its existence. And nature doesn’t make compromises to break filibusters in the Senate – it only responds to actual changes in emissions.

Or we could wait, and talk again next year.