Poor Countries Commit to Climate Treaty, So Why Won't the GOP?

01/13/2015 04:04 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2015

As the Republican Party assumes control of Congress, one of their top priorities is to roll back the Obama administration's recent advances in energy and climate policy. Climate change has long been a favorite target of GOP leaders like Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, who downplay the science and exaggerate the costs of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Republicans have justified their opposition to a climate treaty by claiming that American efforts will be undermined if developing countries refuse to commit to controls on greenhouse gasses.

In the past two months, that situation has changed dramatically. First, China and the United States reached a bilateral agreement to control greenhouse gas emissions. Soon afterward, delegates from 194 countries met in Lima and announced progress on a new climate treaty, to be signed in Paris later this year, which will include every country in its fold.

Strategically, the Republican Party can choose to continue opposing climate policy at every turn, attacking the EPA as it attempts to implement Obama's new regulations on coal-fired power plants and withholding money from the international Green Climate Fund, which provides assistance to developing countries to help them transition to less polluting energy sources. Alternatively, the Republicans could borrow a page from their own history book and demonstrate leadership on environmental issues, like when Teddy Roosevelt established our world-renowned system of national parks and national forests. Real progress on environmental issues in the United States has come about when liberals and conservatives have worked together to pass hallmark legislation like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, signed by George H.W. Bush and supported by a bipartisan coalition in Congress, ushered in the world's first large cap-and-trade program, reducing sulfur dioxide pollution from power plants by two-thirds.

No democracy can make a sustained commitment to climate stabilization through the efforts of only one political party. Rather than debate whether we should tackle this problem, the GOP should engage the Democrats in a lively debate about the smartest way to do so. Here again, the role of developing countries warrants close attention.

A global agreement that commits both rich and poor countries to climate change mitigation is only the first step. Ultimately what matters is what countries do back at home through policies governing energy, transportation, agriculture, and forests. Yet in many developing countries, efforts to promote sustainable development are stymied by the same problem that hinders economic development generally: the absence of effective government institutions.

The Republican-led Congress should hold the Obama administration accountable for ensuring that money under the Green Climate Fund is well spent. Rather than position the GOP once again as the Party of No, support for institution building in developing countries would allow Republicans to advocate fiscal responsibility while outlining a proactive plan to address a colossal environmental problem.

When institutions work well, real progress has been made. In Brazil, deforestation has been slowed thanks to the Public Ministry, an independent unit of the government that aggressively pursues illegal harvesting operations. Indonesia has a program called PROPER that publicizes the emission levels of polluting firms, mobilizing community pressure to improve corporate compliance with the law. In Costa Rica, a wildly popular Payment for Ecosystem Services initiative pays farmers who choose to plant and protect trees on their land.

These successes are exceptions to the rule in developing countries, where heightened public concern for environmental quality has yet to translate into effective institutions. Many of these countries lack professional bureaucracies with a measure of independence from political patrons. The problem is compounded by chronic political and economic instability. Over two-thirds of the delegations from developing countries that signed the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 represented political regimes that no longer exist today. Why should a landowner or power plant operator take seriously new energy policies that are unlikely to last beyond the next crisis or coup?

In countries suffering from institutional weakness, the key to establishing long-term commitments to climate policy is remarkably similar to the strategy needed in the politically divisive atmosphere of the United States. Reformers must embed climate commitments in diverse government agencies, foster supportive constituencies at both local and national levels, and build environmental alliances that span political parties and social groups. Only then will political commitments to addressing global warming be truly sustainable.