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Shikha Dalmia: Why Any Paris Climate Agreement Will Be Worthless

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Shikha Dalmia, The Week

The Paris climate change talks underway right now are being billed as humanity’s last chance to save the world from catastrophic warming. If that’s the case, then the world is surely doomed. That’s because not a single major polluter has offered anything resembling an adequate plan to slash emissions.

In fact, literally every country is busy gaming the process — demonstrating, yet again, the utter folly of an approach that is attempting to save the world by putting it on a collective energy diet.

But the good news is that once this “last chance” fails — and fail it will — the world will still have plenty of time to explore workable solutions.

Every major climate change initiative to date has gone up in smoke. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which sought to cut emissions 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, was doomed from the start. India and China, even then among the world’s top five polluters, refused to even participate. Meanwhile, President Bill Clinton supported the treaty, but he didn’t have a prayer of getting it past the U.S. Congress, so he didn’t even try. Canada ratified the deal but blew its target cuts by 25 percent and eventually quit.Japan and New Zealand similarly faced a compliance gap. Europe met its target but not because its cap-and-trade program was a roaring success, as environmentalists would have you believe. Rather, it was because the industrial emissions of former Soviet bloc countries were so awful in 1990 that minor access to better Western technology produced major gains. Also, Europe’s 2007 recession helped!

The 2009 Copenhagen conference to hammer out a Kyoto sequel was an even bigger debacle. India and China participated — but only to play spoilsports. They rejected America’s proposed emission cuts as small potatoes that didn’t even come close to atoning for America’s historic role in causing the problem in the first place. The whole thing ended on a sour note with global leaders unable to muster anything beyond a statement noting the need to keep global temperatures 2 degrees centigrade below industrial levels.

Paris is supposed to reverse this beggar-other-countries-before-committing-yourself dynamic by taking what The New Yorkers’ John Cassidy has dubbed the “potluck dinner” approach. Instead of imposing legally binding emission cuts top-down, every country is being asked to put its own good faith plan on the table. Even the notion of common metrics to evaluate each country’s plan has been abandoned, as has all talk of “punitive sanctions.” Instead, the hope is that ambitious targets by a few countries would put “peer pressure” on others to match their pledges and over time generate, as President Obama put it, “a race of the top” — just like Microsoft’s Bill Gates decision to give away a bulk of his wealth has now inspired Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to give away his.

But the crucial difference, of course, is that heads of states are not committing their personal resources but their citizens’. They score political points at home not by giving away the store but by protecting it. Even the most committed leaders are not immune from such pressures. […]

The sense of panic driving the global warming conversation has actually made realistic solutions more difficult to achieve. But perhaps when the agreement that the bigwigs hammer out in Paris fails to deliver, the world can finally approach the problem with a cooler head. It might be another decade — but fortunately, there is time for the world to try everything else before doing the right thing.

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