THE BLOG
10/27/2014 08:43 am ET Updated Dec 27, 2014

The Symbolic Politics of Climate Diplomacy

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Last week, the European Union began the process of setting the agenda for the climate negotiations scheduled for Paris in late 2015. They agreed that by 2030 Europe would cut emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels. Writing in the New York Times, James Kanter reported that environmental advocates believed the agreement:

...amounted to a weak compromise reflecting the complexity of managing a bloc of 28 member nations with widely varying energy systems. Elements of the deal were watered down to account for countries like Poland that rely on carbon-heavy coal, and for countries like Britain that were unwilling to accept binding targets on such other measures as the percentage of energy that comes from renewable sources and energy efficiency.

As diverse as Europe might be, they are quite homogeneous when compared to the rest of the world. Since China and India emit far more greenhouse gases than Europe and have a great deal of energy-dependent economic development ahead of them, their need for new sources of energy will make the Paris talks an exercise in futility.

As always, these talks will focus the world's attention on the climate crisis, but the fundamental difference in national interest between developing and developed nations makes a meaningful deal impossible. The opportunity for public education and social learning is an important result of the media's focus on these meetings, and so they have an important role to play. Unfortunately, disappointment, frustration and finger-pointing are also inevitable, as is that strong sense of déjà vu that I always get when observing climate diplomacy.

Given their weak record of success, I continue to wonder why so much time and effort is devoted to these ineffectual talks. I can only assume that there is some political benefit to elected leaders that participate in climate negotiations. I suppose there is the inevitable photo-op of the leaders discussing the state of play with overly caffeinated staff who have negotiated arcane and meaningless treaty provisions well into the evening. Elected leaders are also able to demonstrate that they did the "best they could do" -- whatever "best" might mean. In my view, these negotiations are exercises in political symbolism: they give the appearance of being substantive, but little happens. You might equate this type of policy process to a crustless pie with a tasteless filler.

As long as nation-states have distinctly different levels of energy-dependent economic development, and their self-interests are so varied, there is really no basis for the mutuality of interest required for a meaningful treaty. This is not to say there is no hope of addressing the climate crisis, just that the conditions for effective global diplomacy do not seem to be present.

The actions that will address the climate crisis will largely take place within nation-states, and for reasons that are only indirectly related to climate change. In China, the extreme dependence on coal for energy was a necessity if that country was to develop as quickly as it wanted and needed to develop. But the result has been some of the worst air quality in modern history. China's air quality crisis is similar to America's at the time we enacted national ambient air quality standards in 1970. In many respects, it is worse than the air pollution we experienced. A massive national effort to reduce air pollution is inevitable in China. That will require reductions in the use of coal as a primary fuel. The coming reduction in air pollution may well have the side-effect of reducing the projected growth of greenhouse gases in China.

Here in the United States, a large number of cities, corporations and non-profit institutions are moving to increase their use of renewable energy and are taking steps to make their buildings and vehicles more energy-efficient. Some of this is driven by an effort to reduce costs and make energy systems less centralized and more resilient. As technologies advance in information, communications, and manufacturing, energy stands out as an old-fashioned, highly centralized, technological backwater, ripe for innovation and cost reduction. We are hearing more boardroom discussion of smart grid technologies, distributed generation of energy, energy efficiency and innovative models of financing renewable energy systems. Efforts to improve energy efficiency are increasingly common in cities, companies, universities and hospitals. One of the most effective ways of reducing the cost of cloud computing is to reduce the amount of energy used to run and cool data server farms.

These efforts to modernize the American energy system -- to reduce costs and increase reliability and resiliency -- have the effect of reducing fossil fuel use and the release of greenhouse gases. While "reducing our carbon footprint" is often given as one of the rationales for these actions, in truth, these carbon reductions are a byproduct of the accomplishment of other goals.

I am coming to the conclusion that the climate problem will be addressed indirectly, largely by modernizing our energy system. The positive value of a lower cost, renewable, less polluting, more reliable and decentralized energy system is an easier sell than the negative politics of carbon reduction. One argument focuses on what we get, the other on what we must give up. It's not hard to figure out which argument is more attractive to politicos.

At the risk of redundancy, I'll repeat my basic analysis of the politics of climate change and the American policy direction I consider feasible:
  1. Energy is the central element of economic growth in the developed and developing world. The drive for reliable, low-cost and plentiful energy is central to modern economic life.
  2. Economic growth is required for political stability and, therefore, energy is required for political stability and for political regimes to remain in power.
  3. No national leader will risk economic decline by significantly raising the price of energy.
  4. While short-term energy prices are volatile and can come down for a variety of reasons (such as fracking), fossil fuels are finite and therefore over the long run are subject to shortages and rising prices. Even in a global economy, some nations have easier access to fossil fuels than others.
  5. It is in America's long-term national political and economic interest to develop a renewable alternative to fossil fuels.
  6. An energy policy that created a low-priced, convenient and reliable alternative to fossil fuels could drive fossil fuels from the market, reduce energy prices, stimulate economic growth, increase the popularity of elected leaders and end the climate crisis.
  7. One way to develop new renewable energy technology is to fund the basic science and applied engineering of energy production, transmission and storage, and to also fund the infrastructure needed to efficiently deliver this energy.

In other words, the climate crisis requires a technological fix, not a diplomatic one. When new transformative technologies are developed, there will be a role for diplomacy in ensuring effective transfer of this technology to the developing world. Diplomats can meet in Paris, Copenhagen, Rio, Kyoto, or even Brooklyn, to discuss how these new technologies can be financed in return for mothballing fossil fuel extraction and energy production facilities. At that point there will be shared national interest. Our private sector will want to export these technologies and our government will want to reduce the disruptive impact of climate change. The developing world will want to reduce their energy costs and air pollution by adopting new renewable energy technology. That would be a treaty worth negotiating. The symbolism, media frenzy and futility of today's climate talks could then be replaced by the kind of quiet deal making that engenders real change because it is based on mutual self-interest. But before opening up negotiations, we need to fund and open up more laboratories. That's where we'll find the answer to the climate crisis.