Government officials worldwide are trying to put the best face on the 2010 United Nations climate change negotiations in Cancun, especially after2009’s debacle in Copenhagen. But the talks produced little real progress and led many to wonder whether the two global climate meetings represent a necessary, albeit somewhat sideways step in the long process towards an eventual global treaty reducing greenhouse gases or, alternatively, the gradual and unsurprising end to a nearly twenty-year effort to achieve binding international mandates.
Advocates of a binding global treaty on greenhouse gas emissions are divided over the importance of the new agreement coming out of Cancun. For any who might harbor doubts, the Obama administration’s approach to the negotiations is revealing: Neither the president nor the secretary of state (nor the vice president, for that matter) traveled to Mexico, leaving the negotiations in the hands of State Department Special Envoy Todd Stern. Key congressional leaders also skipped this year’s talks.
The administration’s reduced emphasis on the un meetings, and continuing international disagreements over climate change, demonstrate an uncomfortable fact for many greens: U.S. efforts to stem climate change thus far have largely vindicated the Bush administration’s approach to global action on climate change during its final years. The failures of the high-profile Copenhagen talks — and of U.S. domestic legislation — reflect structural political and economic realities that will be profoundly difficult to overcome, if they can be overcome at all. Obama would do well to understand the lessons of Copenhagen and cap-and-trade and move on to a more practical approach — especially after the 2010 midterm elections.
The pragmatic wing of the activist community has cautiously praised the Cancun summit, which produced a deal that brought a voluntary international climate agreement reached on the margins in Copenhagen inside the un process and created a fund to help poor developing countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and manage the consequences of a warming Earth. At the other end of the spectrum, the climate movement’s doctrinaire ideologues have denounced the talks’ failure to produce a binding agreement on deep reductions. They are all the more bitter after the Copenhagen fiasco, years of resentment of the Bush administration’s approach, and earlier surety that the Democrats controlling the White House and the Congress would accomplish what the prior Republican president was unwilling to try. The fact that they have no “Plan b” for addressing the climate problem — and apparently cannot conceive of a solution other than unprecedented and therefore very unlikely global regulation — only adds to their frustration.
Equally troubling to both of these camps is the Kyoto Protocol’s looming expiration in 2012, with its results limited and no follow-on arrangements in place. Since Kyoto’s modest emissions targets were secondary to its goal of establishing a global system for deeper future reductions, supporters of binding international targets and timetables for emissions are alarmed by the relentless ticking of the clock.
Compounding activists’ worries is the refusal of key parties to the Kyoto Protocol — including Japan and Russia — to agree to an extension through a new so-called “commitment period.” Japan sensibly refuses to accept deeper emissions reductions without commitments from the United States and China. Russia — whose ratification brought Kyoto across the threshold that made the pact legally binding — seems more interested in its ability to sell emissions credits than in preventing climate change. Moscow was an enormous beneficiary of Kyoto’s 1990 base year for measuring emissions reductions; the combination of the Soviet Union’s vast and highly inefficient industrial base and Russia’s subsequent economic collapse meant that the country did not have to do anything to meet its targets and could sell both its natural gas and its leftover emissions to Europe.
With the most invested in Kyoto, European leaders may be particularly eager to make a deal in the remaining time before 2012 — and they may eventually do so. However, neither of the two options available is likely to produce meaningful results. Efforts to negotiate a new global agreement will force a choice. One option is to include the United States and China, the two largest emitters, and India, where emissions are rising rapidly; but this would weaken any deal because none will commit to significant emissions reductions. The alternative is to exclude them, which would limit the impact of an agreement by leaving out the nations together responsible for over 45 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. It could be worse if Japan, Russia, and others are unwilling to accept new limits without a comprehensive deal. This makes a meaningful international agreement on climate change very improbable.
The reasons for this are clear. While both developments were shocking to many inside the echo chamber that surrounds climate change discussions, the breakdown of the Copenhagen negotiations and the slow death of emission-limiting legislation in the United States were eminently predictable. Moreover, while the Obama administration has clearly tempered its ambitions, at least for the time being, there is little evidence that the president and other senior officials have drawn necessary conclusions from their first two years and reassessed U.S. climate change strategy. This is a mistake; the United States needs new pragmatic and creative policies to address climate change at the local, national, and international levels. But making these changes requires clearly understanding what has happened so far.
What really happened in Copenhagen?
One problem in the December 2009 Copenhagen climate summit was that expectations had soared wildly beyond the limits of rationality, in part due to wholly unrealistic hopes tied to President Barack Obama. As a result, the meetings evolved into a summit of heads of state without adequate diplomatic preparation. Climate change is far too complex an issue to resolve in negotiating sessions among national leaders if the central parameters of the deal have not been resolved in advance. Absent this, the administration allowed the United States to be drawn into a high-stakes gamble that was very unlikely to succeed, especially in view of the many other flaws in its approach to the talks.
The second problem was one of strategic sequencing. Since the administration had not succeeded in passing climate legislation prior to Copenhagen, it was trying to pursue an international agreement without a domestic consensus on climate policy. Broadly speaking, this repeated the major error in the Clinton administration’s decision to sign the Kyoto Protocol in the face of clear Senate opposition. Thus, even if the administration succeeded in reaching a deal that went beyond a political declaration, subsequent events have demonstrated that it would not have been able to deliver at home. Given this, the lack of a deal at Copenhagen — which the press and others fortunately and accurately blamed as much on China’s reluctance as U.S. policy paralysis — was probably the best outcome for the administration itself. Reaching an agreement with major emitters in the developed and developing world only to see it die in the Senate would have been a major blow to American credibility and to Obama’s domestic leadership.
The third problem with the U.S. approach to Copenhagen (a problem shared by the Europeans, who often appeared to be observers rather than participants in the negotiations) was tactical and diplomatic. Washington and European capitals gave far too much attention to China — which is admittedly central to any successful effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a global level — thereby placing Beijing in the driver’s seat and limiting American and Western negotiating leverage. This was especially damaging in the wake of the global financial crisis, when China’s sense of indispensability was already unprecedented (not to say inflated). China luxuriated in its Copenhagen role, sending a second-tier diplomat to a negotiating session among heads of state and repeatedly making them sit and wait during phone calls to decision-makers.
The final two problems are fundamental structural weaknesses of the un Framework Convention on Climate Change. One is that un-based negotiating processes inherently give all parties equal formal status (though obviously not equal influence). It is simply too difficult to negotiate a highly complex agreement incorporating emissions limits, verification measures, development support, and other components with 200 parties around the table. While they are well-meaning and legitimately concerned and involved, the vast majority of the delegates in such a conversation have little to contribute beyond their grievances. Denmark’s weak chairmanship didn’t help this already difficult situation.
A similarly deep underlying problem of the unfccc is the historically and morally reasonable but impractical and unmanageable legal concept of “common but differentiated responsibility,” the idea that all nations share responsibility for managing climate change but that the developed world has greater responsibility because of its past contribution to today’s greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the climate problem is well beyond the point at which it could be solved through even drastic measures by the U.S., Europe, and Japan alone. In fact, even if the U.S. became a zero-emission economy by 2030, China’s expected new emissions — driven by an economic engine increasingly important to global growth — would expand to fill nearly all the gap, leaving the world with essentially no net change in emissions.
The statistics tell the story. According to the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, the developing world’s portion of global carbon dioxide emissions has grown from 46.4 percent in 1990 to 57.0 percent in 2010, and is projected to reach 64.2 percent by 2030. China’s share of global co2 emissions have grown from 10.7 percent in 1990 to 23.4 percent in 2010, now somewhat exceeding the U.S. share, and is projected to hit 29.2 percent by 2030, close to double America’s expected share at that time. It is not realistic for developed countries, now making up significantly less than half the total global co2 emissions, to make vast reductions in their own emissions simply to allow developing countries more room to increase emissions.
Separately, while the developed world’s past emissions may be fair game in global negotiations, it is somewhat disingenuous to disconnect the developed world’s progress from developing nations. Setting aside the excesses of the colonial era, during which emissions were still quite low, economic growth in developed countries has in fact made a real difference to those living in developing economies, providing export-oriented jobs as well as improvements in public health, education, and other fields. This is perhaps most spectacular in the case of China, where rapid growth in the last 30 years is substantially attributable to Western investment and perhaps excessive consumer demand for cheap imports.
What happened to domestic
The failure in Copenhagen was both a contributor to and a consequence of the breakdown in domestic action attempted before and after the meeting. It was a consequence of the Obama administration’s strategic decision to use its then-large congressional majorities to push health care reform as its top priority in the months leading up to the summit. Given the rancor associated with this debate — especially severe during the summer of 2009 — this had an immediate impact on the prospects for climate legislation. That impact was compounded by earlier polarizing debates on the economic stimulus package and continuing weak growth after the stimulus.
Simultaneously and unsurprisingly, the administration, Senator John Kerry, and others behind the cap-and-trade bill faced considerable skepticism from fellow Democrats representing coal-producing and coal-using states in the Senate. These Democrats were quite concerned about the effects the legislation could have on coal producers and utilities or, in other words, on jobs and energy prices. In an already bitter political environment, and against the background of a growing grass roots Tea Party movement energized by attempts at federal government intervention, Senate Republicans not passionately committed to the climate issue had little reason to be more accommodating than these Senate Democrats.
After Copenhagen, with no real deal to trumpet, the argument for a climate bill forcing significant emissions cuts was dramatically weakened by the fact that developing countries, especially China, had not made a commitment to take any new emissions-limiting measures they were not previously expected to take. Congressional concern about China’s emissions had already been a major concern when the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated and signed, as reflected in the 1997 Byrd-Hagel Resolution. Approved 95–0 prior to the Clinton administration’s decision to sign Kyoto, Byrd-Hagel explicitly expressed the sense of the Senate that “the exemption for Developing Country Parties [in the un Framework Convention on Climate Change] is inconsistent with the need for global action on climate change and is environmentally flawed” and stated that the United States should not undertake any commitment to reduce its own emissions without “new specific scheduled commitments” by developing countries.
The interrelationship between the domestic and international levels of the climate issue through China’s role may actually prevent action in either arena by creating a catch-22. In brief, Congress won’t approve strong emissions limits without a commitment from China — and China won’t make a commitment before the United States does (if Beijing will make a commitment at all, which is subject to question). Climate bill advocates knew before Copenhagen that they would need to defend themselves against charges that the plan was not only costly domestically, but could further weaken U.S. competitiveness vis-à-vis China during a recession, and senators backing the cap-and-trade bill tried to avoid the catch- 22 by attempting to demonstrate sufficient support for the bill without actually passing it. They sought to strengthen the administration’s negotiating position, hoping that an agreement in the Copenhagen talks would in turn provide the momentum they needed to get cap-and-trade through the Senate. This was far too complex a strategy to work in practice.
With nothing to show from China in the wake of Copenhagen, Senate Democrats were in a weaker substantive position and unable to give the climate bill sustained attention as the 2010 midterm elections approached. After courting Republican Senator Lindsey Graham before and after the summit, in mid-2010 Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid alienated him by sidelining climate legislation in favor of immigration reform, to strengthen his own struggling reelection campaign. Either legislation would have been quite difficult to pass in an election year, but Senator Reid’s decision effectively killed the most prominent and promising bipartisan negotiations on a climate bill.
Underlying all of the back-and-forth on Capitol Hill was the biggest obstacle to climate change legislation: the fact that the American people were never truly behind emissions limits. Public support for cap-and-trade was basically illusory: Though 66 percent supported emissions limits in principle in Pew Research Center polling in the summer of 2010, only 32 percent viewed climate change as a “priority” — compared to 81 percent who focused on jobs and 67 percent on energy needs. Thus, while the idea of emissions reductions had some appeal, most people subordinated it to other concerns, and legislation that appeared either to put jobs at risk or to raise energy costs had little support. Climate bill advocates were well aware of this problem, which was one of the factors behind proposals to create “green jobs,” but they were never able convincingly to overcome it in the public eye.
In fact, though they have tried many different arguments, climate advocates have thus far largely failed in making a sufficiently strong case for emissions limits on any basis. While the scientific case for climate change is solid, the “approaching calamity” argument about its expected consequences hasn’t gained traction. This appears partially due to good public relations by climate skeptics (helped recently by foolish and highly-publicized emails among a handful of scientists) and to record-high snowfall throughout the United States in the winter of 2009-10 that was consistent with climate change modeling but confused many Americans.
The moral argument for action to save indigenous peoples, animals, and glaciers is closely related to the calamity argument and often has a greater emotional appeal. However, despite support from some evangelical Christian groups focused on humanity’s stewardship of God’s creation, this has also fallen short.
Some conservatives have been attracted to two different national security arguments for measures that address climate change. One has highlighted the possible security consequences of floods, droughts, and refugee flows in failed and failing states and has been promoted by former senior military officers. The other has targeted reductions in oil consumption to improve energy security, usually combined with dubious claims that lower American oil imports will deny revenue to hostile regimes or groups.
These arguments appear insufficient largely because most people see the benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions as long-term, abstract, and distant, while they see the costs as immediate, concrete, and personal. As a result, strong limit-based policies are almost inherently impractical in democratic societies or, indeed, authoritarian systems that are not prepared to impose them without regard to public reaction.
Actually, without inexpensive and widely applicable new technologies to break the link between energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, the effectiveness of any limits is inversely proportional to their popularity. Making emissions limits more effective requires making energy more expensive, with public support for the policy declining as it becomes more effective. Conversely, making limit-based policies sufficiently popular to win public support and legislative approval requires either making them ineffective, by restricting energy price increases, or extremely costly, by providing offsetting subsidies. The fate of the U.S. climate bill is telling in this regard in that its emission reductions of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 were more modest even than the reductions the Clinton administration accepted under Kyoto — and the bill still failed.
Even in Europe, where climate policies are seemingly embraced by the public, much of the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is in a sense artificial. The European Union’s population growth rate has been half America’s rate over the last decade, something that in itself sharply slows emissions growth in comparison to the United States and other countries with more rapidly increasing populations, requiring less effort to make emissions cuts measured from a common baseline year. Europe also benefits from accounting rules that compare current emissions to years when emissions were artificially high, especially by combining emissions for West Germany and East Germany in 1990 and comparing them with today’s united Germany, in which many of East Germany’s highly inefficient power plants and factories no longer exist for economic reasons. According to Eurostat, Germany represented around 20 percent of Europe’s total emissions in 2008, but accounted for 43 percent of the decline in emissions since 1990. Finally, Europe (and Germany in particular) is in a sense outsourcing greenhouse emissions through its extensive use of Russia’s natural gas rather than domestic coal, even as Moscow substitutes its own coal for gas internally to maintain export revenues.
Europe seems likely to confront America’s same dilemmas moving forward and may, in fact, already be facing them. For while citizens in most European countries are accustomed to higher gasoline and electricity prices — and, for that matter, higher taxes — it is not the absolute level of these costs that excites public opinion but rather the changes up and down. So while Europeans may tolerate higher costs, it is far from assured that they would accept considerable new increases. Moreover, at the level of the European Union, European advocates of steep emission reductions face a problem similar to that of the Senate Democrats but more severe: They need to accommodate coal-dependent national governments, rather than coal-dependent senators. After bailing out Greece and Ireland, how much will Germans be willing to pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Poland, Hungary, and other new members of the European Union? And how much will the eu and its member states be able to pay while implementing austerity packages to address calamitous deficits?
At the deepest level, it is so difficult to make climate policy because it is not really climate policy at all, but a back door to energy policy. And energy is one of the most politically sensitive issues in modern society, because it is so intimately intertwined with so many other issues, both economically and in daily life. In America, energy policy intersects with life in countless ways, from how people get to work (and, in fact, whether they have a job in some cases) to how comfortable they are in their homes, how much they pay for energy, and how much they have left over for other things. As a result, making energy policy is an extremely dangerous pursuit for politicians: It carries within it scores of potential booby traps, any of which might end a career in elected office. From a political perspective, trying to pass climate change legislation is like trying to walk through a minefield with a blindfold — and a dozen different sleeve-tugging guides, each of whom is sure that his path is the safe one.
Climate change lessons
With this in mind, the first climate policy lesson for the Obama administration is that the climate issue simply does not and in the foreseeable future cannot provide a sufficiently broad political base to make the policy changes necessary to address climate change successfully. What America really needs is more effective and focused economic policy, including energy policy, driven by America’s economic needs but sensitive to climate concerns. Trying to make economic policy or even energy policy via climate policy puts the politics upside down and will not succeed in preventing climate change.
The second and related lesson is that even seemingly minor yet still binding international commitments will be difficult if not impossible to ratify within the United States, especially in a more closely divided Senate. Many have discussed a compromise solution for the climate negotiations, under which countries would sign a treaty codifying their existing domestic policies. While this appears to be noncontroversial on its face (and limited in its impact), even this outcome is unlikely in view of America’s domestic political realities. In view of the attention to the economy — and to China — during the 2010 election campaign, virtually any U.S. climate legislation, even a further watered-down domestic cap-and-trade bill, would have a minimal chance to overcome a Senate filibuster with 60 votes, let alone win the 67 votes required by the Constitution to ratify a treaty and internationalize such a policy. The door to a global treaty involving the United States is all but shut.
A third lesson is that China, like the United States, is making decisions based on its domestic needs rather than any particular sense of global obligation to reduce climate change impact in more vulnerable countries. This situation is even less likely to change in China than in America, because of differences between what leaders in the two countries might reasonably fear. The president, his cabinet, senators, and House members might lose their jobs as a result of costly policies that slow growth, but many of them would probably move quickly into new jobs with higher pay. China’s leaders have considerably more at stake: They fear that a slowing economy could produce widespread protests, political instability, or even the collapse of the Communist Party’s control. China’s climate policy will be driven by its leaders’ need to maintain exports and create jobs as well as their interest in reducing energy consumption as a matter of economic policy and energy security rather than special environmental concern.
Another lesson, the fourth, is that U.S. climate policy cannot be disconnected from America’s broader national interests. The sharp reductions in China’s emissions that advocates seek would likely require a foreign investment effort on the scale of the Marshall Plan — something difficult to reconcile with America’s economic and security interests vis-à-vis China at a time when Beijing is already becoming increasingly assertive and when China’s prosperity is in large measure attributable to U.S. policy in the first place. The massive transfers of wealth some advocates seek from the United States and Europe to China and other developing nations are totally impractical. Even if it materializes, the $100 billion per year by 2020 envisioned under the Cancun agreement will make only a modest difference due to the scale of investment required.
The administration should not need to learn that un-based processes are often ineffective, but this must be the fifth lesson. The two most important participants in un climate talks — the United States and China — are unlikely to accept un-mandated emissions limits, especially limits sufficiently tough to avert climate change impacts. (Still, each will probably do much more than it is prepared to promise.) The most committed participants, in Europe, don’t produce a sufficiently large share of global emissions for even drastic cuts to succeed on their own. And the most anxious participants, in poorer developing countries, can do little more than watch the process with diminishing hope, while trying to extract compensation payments from wealthier economies.
The sixth and final lesson is the central role of technology. The history of international climate talks shows that governments and societies will generally commit only to limits that they believe to be economically viable, which from a policymaking perspective means limits that nations can reasonably expect to satisfy on the basis of existing technologies and expected improvements — which we already know will be inadequate to prevent climate change. At the same time, if we achieve a technological breakthrough that makes radical emissions reductions economically attractive, binding limits will not be necessary to produce the required action.
What to do?
Taken together these lessons force a broad conclusion that must be the basis for any successful policy: It is very unlikely that humanity will be able to stop or considerably slow climate change by relying on binding emissions limits, whether domestic or international.
At the international level, this has several policy implications. The first is that emissions-reduction discussions should focus on action-oriented dialogue among major emitters, the top 21 of which accounted for 79 percent of global emissions in 2007, according to the International Energy Agency. un-based processes create the illusion of action, consuming considerable time and energy in the process (as well as producing a lot of co2 to bring delegates to international conferences), but are secondary to solving the climate challenge. Like in Cancun, the United States should reduce its diplomatic commitment and presence at future unfccc meetings, concentrating on using the sessions for coordination and information-sharing rather than negotiation.
While the Bush administration made plenty of mistakes early on, theatrically pulling out of Kyoto when it could just as easily have allowed it to languish in the Senate, as it surely would have, and vocally denying the science of climate change, it eventually saw the need to address climate change through discussion with major emitters. Combined with an apparent preexisting bias against the United Nations, this led President Bush to launch the Major Economies Meeting, bringing together the world’s largest economies to discuss energy technology and related issues. The Obama administration re-branded this effort as the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate.
Secondly, rather than trying to cajole or shame China into taking on binding commitments in international negotiations, which will not produce important results, America should focus on encouraging further Chinese action to reduce emissions. This could include offering expanded economic, scientific, and technical cooperation with China (while protecting U.S. economic interests, including intellectual property rights) to accelerate its efforts. Simultaneously, the United States should underscore to Beijing the climate change impacts predicted in major studies and how associated extremes in weather would be especially problematic for China, with its lower per capita gdp and less resilient political, economic, and social systems. This should not be a public message, but it can be a clear one.
In the realms of diplomacy and global public opinion, the United States should cede no ground, working to prevail in rhetorical battles and to win over media and thought leaders. Tactics in these areas could include working with delegations from smaller developing countries to shift the onus of action (and blame) to China by demonstrating an American commitment to taking real and measurable steps to reduce emissions. Already committed to the principle of common but differentiated responsibility with respect to their own actions, poor developing nations are increasingly accepting the notion that not all developing countries have equal obligations and might at a minimum deprive China of their public support. The U.S. appeared to make some headway in this direction at Cancun. Realistically, these efforts will probably have little impact on Chinese policy; for many if not most of these governments, concerns over climate change impacts are long-term and secondary to their immediate hopes for economic growth, infrastructure projects, and the political benefits of both. Chinese investment can make a key contribution to achieving these objectives. Chinese investment can make a key contribution to achieving these objectives.
What is important is to recognize that there is a difference between China and other developing economies, and even between China and other large developing economies like India and Brazil. The difference is a matter of scale; one can credibly refer to the United States and China as a g2 because their combined economies — and greenhouse gas emissions — are so large. India’s emissions are one-fifth to one-quarter of U.S. or Chinese emissions, and are growing at two-thirds the rate of China’s emissions. China, India, Brazil, and other developing nations all share an emphasis on development rather than emissions reductions and an unwillingness to accept binding international limits on their emissions, but they do not have equal responsibility for projected growth in emissions from developing economies or equal abilities to reduce emissions or address their consequences.
Domestically, the United States should focus on energy policy rather than climate policy, recognizing that altering energy consumption patterns takes quite some time and seeking both incremental improvements in efficiency and breakthroughs. The central goal of such a policy would be to orient American energy policy to serve broader national economic and security goals, by increasing efficiency and therefore productivity, contributing to economic growth and creating jobs, maintaining and extending America’s global leadership in science and technology, and limiting our exposure to volatile commodity prices. New technologies also require an adept and technically literate society, which in turn requires education reform. President Obama’s efforts to build support for a new economic growth strategy based on developing new products rather than new financial instruments are constructive.
Taking political facts of life into account, policies that focus on incentives to develop new technologies rather than applying penalties to existing technologies will be much more likely to succeed, though in an environment of increasing concern about deficits, it will not be easy to establish and maintain incentives. The highest priority in this approach must be investment in research and development as well as measures to speed the commercialization and implementation of successful new technologies. Public-private investment funds could be one option in accelerating the deployment of new technologies.
At the international level, new collaborative research programs, intensified exchanges of existing best practices, and expanded technology-sharing will be important. Protecting intellectual property rights will be essential to stimulating the innovation necessary to produce breakthroughs. While some exotic technologies, such as geo-engineering (attempting to reduce temperatures by increasing the atmosphere’s reflectivity, dissipating more of the sun’s energy into space), seem fraught with problems, it would be irresponsible for the policymaking and scientific communities to ignore them. Further study of the technologies and their political and economic implications is important.
A greater focus on concrete national-security-related issues could also be helpful. The general argument that climate change can lead to greater instability and requires a response on security grounds has been ineffective. Yet it is clear that the U.S. military’s reliance on fossil fuels — and the supply chains they demand — is a real vulnerability when American forces are in the field; the frequent destruction of U.S. and nato fuel tankers in Pakistan (and earlier in Iraq) illustrates this. Use-based research seeking to solve specific problems like this one, in this case developing low-emission alternative energy technologies that do not require massive distributed infrastructure, can lead to important progress toward both security and climate goals. Such research is often more suited to bipartisan support than broad, ambitious, and controversial programs. Moreover, given the track record of military-origin technologies adapted and commercialized for civilian use, these investments might eventually contribute to economy-wide reductions in emissions over the longer term.
The Obama administration should also look at innovative programs to encourage state and local measures. In the absence of federal action during the Bush administration, states launched a number of creative efforts to meet climate and energy goals. As the incubators for ideas, in constant competition with their neighbors for population and economic vitality, states are well-placed to develop practical solutions that respond to their varied circumstances. The Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” competition for federal funds might serve as a model to catalyze new ideas; one can imagine a similar program of incentives that encourages states (or groups of states) to compete to formulate the best emissions reduction strategies in targeted sectors, such as transportation, electricity, or commercial or residential buildings. Effective approaches could be implemented on a wider scale.
Finally, recognizing that the world is unlikely to stop climate change, America will need to intensify research on climate change impact and begin federal, state, and local assessments of the policies needed to adapt to the most likely domestic consequences. While important steps can and will be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, any country, industry, or community that does not increase its understanding of the impact of climate change and build up resilience is putting itself at considerable risk.