The recent Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, which revealed both a deficit in US leadership as well as a growing international concern over the global environment, afforded the US a unique opportunity to address both for the price of one. But there are already murmurings that we have yet squandered yet another golden opportunity to reverse our declining favorability and convert it into influence.
An international perception still exists, due in part to the President’s recalcitrance in his post-G8 climate change statement as well as his absence from today’s session, that the US has no interest in participating in an international climate change agreement, let alone leading the charge.
But California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger addressed the UN general assembly session this morning to demonstrate that, while the federal government is not fully engaged in climate change policy, a number of states are. And while the value of state actions to curb emissions are debatable — to be effective, climate change policies will need to stretch broader than a state to achieve economies of scale and to guard against a balloon effects where emissions are simply displaced to a neighboring state — Gov. Schwarzenegger has moved beyond California policy to lead the way on inter-state compacts like the Western Climate Initiative.
Now I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the environmental advisor to Gov. Schwarzenegger who crafted his climate policy, Terry Tamminen, recently joined the New America Foundation to replicate this model throughout the country, and in so doing, put the issue of climate change on the radar screen across the country to build political momentum for greater international engagement on the issue. And the New America Foundation has begun to place this on the presidential map by hosting Democratic Presidential Candidate and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson as he delivered his energy policy speech.
Though Schwarzenegger’s speech in the opening plenary proposed nothing new, as UK Secretary of State for Environment Hilary Benn suggested, the California governor’s presence was the real cause for optimism and telegraphed to the UN the seriousness of some US leaders to tackle this global challenge.
But he also sent a signal on a critical dispute that has consumed American debates stating:
I believe California will do great things, amazing things. But we need the world to do great things too. The time has come to stop looking back at the Kyoto protocol. It is time to stop looking back in blame or suspicion. The consequences of global climate change are so pressing, it doesn’t matter who was responsible for the past. What matters is who is answerable to the future. And that means all of us. The rich nations and the poor nations have different responsibilities, but one responsibility we all have is action.
From what I have read, the critical editorials and impassioned Congressional invectives that denounce or dismiss the climate change agenda tend to harken back to the 1997 Kyoto Protocols, which did not include major future emitters like China and India. This line of argument that fixates on the past fails to recognize that Kyoto was merely a first step to galvanize international action, not the last word. The United States has spent far too much time tangled in the shortfalls of Kyoto rather than developing new innovative solutions to move past it. Governor Schwarzenegger seeks to split the gordian knot and lead with a strategy of his own.
The question of burdensharing and financing that ultimately torpedoed Kyoto can be addressed through a number of creative schemes. For instance, economist Jagdish Bhagwati, reflecting on Kyoto, penned an article last year that sketched out just how such a forward-looking financial burdensharing might look like:
India and China argued successfully that because they were hardly responsible for the “stock” problem–past damage–they should be exempted from the “flow” obligation–the current damage–at least for now. So, the stock problem was addressed by fudging the solution to the flow problem. The political fudge left Kyoto unsalable. It will remain so unless it is revised to reflect the distinction between the stock and flow obligations and, therefore, the disconnect between the nations that did damage in the past and those that are joining their ranks with a vengeance. How is one to do this?
The stock problem can be addressed by adopting the very technique that the US has used at home to deal with past damage to the environment. Consonant with the American fascination with torts actions, the US enacted in 1980 the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, commonly known as the Superfund. Under it, a tax was levied on the chemical and petroleum industries and, among other actions, liability established for people responsible for the release of hazardous waste at closed and abandoned hazardous waste sites. It established a trust fund (which would also receive the payments for past damage under the act) to provide for “clean-up” when no responsible party could be identified.
This principle for dealing with past damage makes sense and can surely be applied in the international context. The rich nations, which have been responsible for the overwhelming bulk of the release of CO into the atmosphere in the past, would have to agree to payment of damages into a global warming superfund. These payments could be assessed for a period of no less than 25 years. The estimated damages could reflect the opportunity cost of reducing the CO emissions by a corresponding amount in the next 25 years.
Since “clean-up” does not make sense in the context of global warming, these funds would instead be allocated to researching a variety of CO-saving technologies, such as wind and solar energy, and to subsidising the purchase of environment-friendly technologies by the developing countries, including India and China. Such subsidies would rebound to the benefit of the rich countries paying into the superfund, since their companies typically produce these technologies. So, aside from the global warming superfund being palatable to the rich countries because it reflects a principle already in domestic practice, business support for it can be expected as well.
On the other hand, the flows need to be taxed, just as in the polluter-pays principle. The existing obligations are based broadly on the half-baked principle of “prevention of significant deterioration”, whereby those who pollute more do not have to pay more and only the excess pollution generated by each country is sought to be redistributed more equitably.
Instead, efficiency and fairness require nations to be taxed on their total CO discharge annually. China and India would then have liabilities reflecting their net discharges and the US burden would be significantly higher than that of almost all other nations because it pollutes most. Again, funds collected could be partly added to the global superfund for international uses; the rest could be spent on domestic projects for the same purposes. It is hard to imagine the US, the ideological ally of markets, objecting to this application of the market principle: making each nation pay for its total pollution. The tax is only a way–like selling tradeable permits for CO discharges–of creating a missing market.
Bhagwati’s proposal is a good starting point but there are a number of other new mechanisms being proposed — for instance another one has been the pricing of carbon sinks which was not included in Kyoto and incents lesser developed countries to preserve forests and contribute to carbon mitigation.
It would behove the US government to more actively participate in and steer the international debate, not only to capture the tangible benefits of minimizing climate change, but also to restore our international legitimacy and moral credibility, a currency we seem to be finding increasingly valuable these days.
More info and opinions on today’s session can be found at UN Dispatch.