How Costs, Not Skepticism, Are Defeating Action on Climate Change The Kyoto Protocol and the High Cost of Fighting Climate Change

Even Canadians are rejecting greenhouse gas limits. How can sustainability fans fight global warming?

U.S. diplomats visit Canadian oil sands


The key barrier to fighting climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions is that any such scheme is likely to be expensive.

Some people find that argument straightforward, even obvious; to others, it’s naïve and incorrect. For those in the former camp, recent news has provided an instructive example. Before this week’s annual United Nations’ climate talks in Durban, South Africa, Canada confirmed that it will not renew its commitment to (and may even withdraw from) the Kyoto Protocol, a binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, when it expires in 2012. Japan and Russia have also said they will not renew. All three countries' leaders have concluded that there is no point in signing up for a binding commitment to reduce emissions unless other countries—particularly China and the United States (the world’s biggest and second-biggest emitters respectively)—pledge to do the same. “Kyoto is the past,” Peter Kent, the Canadian Minister of the Environment, said at the conference.

"What's astonishing is watching Canada emerge as a rogue among developed countries," said Bill McKibben, the author and environmental activist, in an interview with the Huffington Post. Many environmentalists were disappointed rather than surprised. Canada is generally a good international citizen, and has been a prominent voice on global climate action. It was one of the most prominent countries to sign the protocol, in 1997, and to ratify it, in 2002. Its participation was meaningful because its economy, like that of the United States, is highly carbon-intensive; in addition to consuming a lot of fossil fuels, Canada is a major producer. For it to ratify Kyoto suggested a serious commitment to fighting climate change.

But Canada has not come close to meeting its targets. The domestic opposition to the Kyoto Protocol has always been fierce, especially from the business community and oil-rich Alberta province. The current Prime Minister, Conservative Stephen Harper, has never supported the protocol. As detailed in this timeline from CBC, Canada's commitment to Kyoto has therefore been debated more or less continuously for the better part of 10 years.

Kyoto’s critics have got the upper hand recently, for a number of political and economic reasons. Kathryn Harrison, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia, explains that the resistance to deep reductions has only grown as Alberta increasingly produces oil from unconventional sources such as tar sands. That form of production that is more greenhouse-gas intensive than traditional drilling, meaning that in the prime minister’s home province, the relative cost of compliance with reduction efforts is actually growing. “They were opposed from day one,” she says, “and as Alberta’s emissions have increased, they haven’t exactly embraced the idea.”

Self-centered, perhaps—as Harrison points out, the province has long benefited from its natural resources, and it’s not as if Albertans put the oil in the ground themselves—but it’s hardly incomprehensible. And what should be of particular interest to environmentalists in the United States is that it has nothing to do with climate science. “Most Canadians have come to terms with the reality of climate change,” wrote Dale Marshall, a climate policy analyst, in 2002, summarizing the politics at the time. “Yet the country remains embroiled in a debate over the economic costs and benefits of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol.” There are climate skeptics in Canada; Harper used to be among them. But for the most part the science is taken as settled.

That’s why, despite widely different political rhetoric on the issue, Canada has ended up with a position that is actually quite close to that of the United States, where climate skeptics scoff freely. In some contexts—the Republican presidential primary, for example—belief in climate science may actually be a liability.

The odd thing is that though skeptics are vocal, they are the minority. Polling has been consistent on this for years. While the number of Americans who believe in global warming is declining, a significant majority—63 percent, according to the latest survey from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press—agree that global warming is real and consider it to be at least a somewhat serious problem.

And in the United States, as in Canada, costs have been the most significant barrier to coordinated climate action. When it came time to ratify Kyoto, for example, George W Bush was president . While Bush does believe in global warming (though his administration squashed reports from government climate scientists on the topic), he announced that Kyoto was too expensive.

During the 2009 effort to pass the cap-and-trade bill, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the law would reduce GDP by between one-fourth and three-fourths of one percent by 2020, and the costs to households would have been smaller than the costs to industry thanks to rebates built into the legislation. Still, there was a perception that the bill was prohibitively expensive. Republicans dredged up a comment that Barack Obama had made during his presidential campaign: under his plan, he said, electricity rates “would necessarily skyrocket.”

The upshot of all of this is that environmentalists should pay more attention to the economic arguments than the outright skepticism: For whatever reason, America has more vocal climate skeptics than Canada does; chalk it up to American unruliness (or Canadian politeness). But the fact that they’ve ended up with the same position suggests that belief is less important than the business implications. That might point to the next steps. If international agreements—still the best way to coordinate collective action on what is the world’s biggest collective action problem—are stalling out, it’s going to be hard for individual countries to adopt carbon restrictions that won’t, on their own, affect a global problem.

Maybe the pitch to reluctant nations is that it’s better to invest in low-emissions technology sooner, rather than risk being left behind when the price of oil and gas rises. Even if the externalities of fossil fuels are never priced in, you could still make the argument for a diversified energy portfolio; at some point, we’re going to have a problem if our infrastructure is built around easy access to cheap fossil fuels.

Another approach would be to focus on tangible environmental goals that are already widely accepted. Improving emissions standards for cars or factories, for example, could be pursued in the name of air pollution and efficiency. Canada's reversal on Kyoto is demoralizing for environmentalists, but it should clarify the nature of the challenge, a necessary condition for overcoming it.

Photo
via (cc) Flickr User U.S. Mission Canada

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