For the next couple of weeks, thousands of government officials, NGOs, environmental activists and reporters will gather in Cancun, Mexico for international climate negotiations, officially known as the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-16) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) [PDF]. It's fitting that the talks are being held in a vacation resort, where people go to escape -- because only by ignoring what's happening in the rest of the world is it possible to take these U.N. negotiations seriously.
Heading into the Cancun talks, expectations are low. They aren't low enough. Here are 10 reasons why it will be hard, if not impossible, to bring about meaningful action to curb global warming through this U.N. process. Many are admittedly U.S.-centric, all of them matter and if you want to skip ahead through this unusually long post, No. 10 is the biggest reason why I doubt that these Cancun talks, or the successor negotiations -- COP17 in South Africa, COP18 in South Korea, etc. -- will get us the change we need.
So as not to be too gloomy, I'll conclude with a thought or two on what might work instead…but first the discouraging news.
1. Global warming pollutants are invisible. So it's hard to get people to care about them. Winning broad public support to regulate soot or smog or soiled rivers or polluted beaches is easier. A 1969 fire in the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland lasted just 30 minutes, but it helped fuel the environmental movement and passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.
2. The costs of curbing climate change are immediate and the benefits are in the future. Any effort to reduce emissions will cost money because low-carbon energy sources (solar, wind, nuclear) are more expensive than burning fossil fuels. Electric cars are pricier than gas-powered vehicles. But Americans don't like to sacrifice today for a better tomorrow. We're lousy at saving. Instead of raising taxes or cutting government benefits, we run up huge deficits that will burden future generations. Government debt is close to 90 percent of GDP. Deferred gratification is not our strong suit.
3. Environmentalists have been disingenuous about the climate issue. They've argued that regulation of carbon dioxide will create green jobs and grow the economy. Typical is this graphic from Environmental Defense. ("Get a step-by-step picture of how a carbon cap will spark new jobs, lift the economy and clean the air.") Uh, no. Most economists agree that dealing with global warming will entail short-term costs. (See Eric Pooley's excellent analysis at Slate.) Their estimates of those costs are generally in the range of 0.5 to 1 percent of U.S. GDP (Harvard's Robert Stavins) or 1 percent of global GDP (The Stern Review, PDF). The costs of inaction will eventually be much greater. But carbon regulation will likely slow economic growth in the short run by raising energy costs. It's not a free lunch, and we should be honest about that.
4. Republicans who matter don't believe climate science. Ron Brownstein put it well a few weeks ago in The National Journal:
The GOP is stampeding toward an absolutist rejection of climate science that appears unmatched among major political parties around the globe, even conservative ones.
Indeed, it is difficult to identify another major political party in any democracy as thoroughly dismissive of climate science as is the GOP here.
Why this is the case is a topic for another day. It's worth noting that when Republicans polled by The Washington Post were asked, "Is there solid evidence that the average temperature on Earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades or not?" only 38 percent of Republicans said yes while 53 percent said no.
Without Republican support, comprehensive carbon regulation can't be approved in the U.S. What's more, as you may recall from high school civics, it takes a two-thirds vote of the U.S. Senate to approve a treaty. And the goal of these negotiations is ... a treaty!
5. China's no more interested in a global treaty than we are. While you read lots about clean energy investments in China, economic growth in the world's No. 1 emitter of GHGs is fueled by cheap coal. Some people argue that China deliberately sabotaged the Copenhagen talks -- here's a dramatic account from The Guardian.