Why the Recent China Climate Change “Deal” was a Bad Move, and Why the United States Needs to Show Leadership on the Issue
The idea that climate change will be serious and that we can’t do anything about it because of changes already in the system, is often pushed by climate change “skeptics” as yet another way to avoid redress on the issue. (This, notwithstanding that it’s almost the very opposite of the claim that climate change is no big deal in the first place – as the pattern of any argument possible to “refute” climate change runs rampant.)
But the first mistake we make is to think we can’t have any real effect on a rapidly compounding problem, specifically arising from actions and patterns that we continue to engage in.
By definition, we can have an effect.
And by definition, we can also have an effect in a transformative way, since it is we who are continuing to alter the long-term chemical composition of the atmosphere, and we who are doing so at a remarkably rapid geological rate. Those changes matter as much, if not more, than changes that have already occurred.
The basic reason for this is that despite some of what’s been written, the phenomenon likely compounds in a non linear way until, among other things, enough energy change is built-in to set both ice caps on an irreversible course of full melt, for example. That would means hundreds of feet of sea level rise, not dozens.
We may have already crossed a threshold or two, but there are likely more, and ones that are more significant.
Also, pause for a moment if you were taken aback by the mention of dozens or hundreds of feet of sea level rise. Geologically, it’s not a big deal. We’ve just been constrained by our limited sense of the world and our own recent evolution and circumstances. While geologically, the change we’ve already wrought to the atmosphere, is already significant, and we’re amplifying it at breakneck speed.
But we can also dramatically improve our approach to gaining international cooperation on climate change – something that is ultimately needed to effectively address the issue – by re-thinking some presumptions; starting with two that are very basic.
The first is that the recent climate change agreement with China to “reduce emissions” was a significant or even productive step forward.
The second is that it’s pointless for the U.S. to act unilaterally on the climate change issue, since our action alone can’t have sufficient effect on the total global atmospheric picture.
These presumptions, in fact, are both heavily flawed. Consider why:
The agreement with China made it look like we, the United States, need to “get something” in order to act.
But what we got we got was a declaration by China to start decreasing total emissions well down the road: Something that given their own concerns about the issue and their own growing broader pollution problem, they were reportedly otherwise likely set on doing even without much bilateral prodding.
And, since the agreement is for China’s emissions to not only continue, but keep rising for quite some time – what we “got” was an agreement by China to essentially do all but nothing for a decade and a half, while we simultaneously achieved validation of the idea that this is both okay, and some sort of relevant accomplishment.
In terms of future negotiating, we also lost the benefit of good faith we would have otherwise gained by showing the world straight up that we were taking at least some relevant voluntary responsibility for our own actions. (This is particularly important because, for most of the modern era, we have been by far the largest contributor to climate change, despite having a small fraction of the population. And we are currently second behind China, and easily remain the per-capita leader in contributions to the problem.)
Instead we made it appear as if we needed to “get something” in return, as opposed to showing willingness to exhibit good faith, and show key leadership, on the very problem we have most contributed to.
On top of that, what we “got” in return for this loss of good faith and future negotiating opportunity, only entrenched a bad pattern. It made it look to the world like a scientifically tepid, if not backward “kick the can down the road” approach was somehow progress; and so set a standard for action that is almost counter productive. (And it also entrenched the idea for China – as if they are actually doing something legitimately relevant on the issue.)
In other words, had we acted unilaterally in lieu of a lopsided agreement, we not only would have shown far more good faith, and then been in a much stronger bargaining position to extract – and even more reasonably try to insist upon – action by other nations: we would also not have validated a strategy on the part of China that is inconsistent with what needs to be done to relevantly address the issue. (And this is particularly key since China, given its enormous population, has now surpassed the U.S. surpassed as world’s largest net contributor to the problem.)
In addition to efforts regarding the rest of the world, had we avoided such a lopsided agreement we would also have then been in a stronger position to negotiate with China as well. After acting unilaterally in good faith, not only would we have some legitimacy in terms of requests or even soft demands, but we would also have far more support from other nations towards China in in terms of any efforts to actually get a meaningful, rather than in reality, almost worse than meaningless, “agreement,” with them.
That will now be more difficult to do, because our agreement – again – makes it seem as if China “already gave us something.” (Though we can get somewhat around that with better redress changes on our part; candor regarding our mistake; and the ideas that asking for “more,” really isn’t asking for more because we didn’t get anything to begin with, and that we are also doing more and taking more of a leadership role on the issue; and “China probably doesn’t want to be left behind.”)
There is also another very key consideration. Avoiding the type of agreement we made with China would have avoided further substantiating another one of the very biggest mistakes we are making: Namely, the idea that because we got to “develop” on fossil fuels, that other countries still in the process of “developing” should have that same “right.”
This currently very popular but mistaken line of thinking relies upon three presumptions.
- First, it presumes that using fossil fuels is a right. That is, something that pollutes the air and with overuse even directly harms the health of people, including children – in the process perhaps trampling upon a far more inherent right of children, at least, to air that doesn’t chronically impact their long term health – is a “right” and not something to simply consider as an option for part of our hard energy desires.
- It makes the presumption that using fossil fuels is in other countries’ interests in the long run.
- It relies upon the presumption that the reasonableness of economic habit isn’t inherently connected to the current state of knowledge.
Using fossil fuels may in some limited ways be a right. (Or not.) But so is the right to air, the most basic human and life requirement of all, and which need, nor the ubiquity of trammeled air, can be avoided.
We have to breathe. Breathing unclean air impinges upon health, and activities that create this on a relevant level are foolish, if fairly easy, for us to engage in because the real harm is hidden, and commingled with so many other things that affect health.
The presumption that using fossil fuels is in other countries’ long run interests is also likely incorrect, for the same multitude of reasons why using fossil fuels is at this point highly counter productive in the first place. (The fact that part of both the harm and the benefit of avoiding that harm, are global as well as local, doesn’t change this basic fact. It just makes the issue global as well as local.)
This same presumption, more tellingly, relies upon the same type of archaic but popular thinking that created the problem to begin with. And Einstein’s famous maxim that, loosely, “a problem can’t be solved with the same mindset that created it in the first place,” probably applies here.
That mindset fails to accomodate for the real, and often far more fundamental, long term harm to the things that matter most – quality of existence. And it also presumes that growth, including economic growth, has to damage us or our world, rather than by definition improve us or our world.
Relatedly, the assumption that using fossil fuels is today in developing countries long term interests also relies upon the presumption that how we choose to develop isn’t intimately connected to what we know at the time we were choosing it.
And to say that because we chose it in the past and it helped us (also an assumption we mistakenly simply take as fact – at least by some point in our development), that now it must also be of long term help to other countries, all but dismisses the reality of the underlying issue itself: The rapid and accelerating rate of significant to radical future global ecological and climatic change due to ongoing geologically radical alteration of the key long term composition of our atmosphere.
The development and reasonableness of economic habit is directly connected to the state of knowledge at the time. We “developed” for decades when the current state of knowledge did not exist.
Certainly our choices have been increasingly ill thought as we moved ever forward through the most recent years of our economic history. But we still made those choices based upon the state of knowledge that existed at the time the choices are made, even if we make mistaken choices. And the choices we face now, whether we make mistakes in doing so or not, are still based uon the state of knowledge that exists now.
As a result of earlier choices, we are also thus somewhat reliant (or we perceive ourselves to be) upon fossil fuels and other related practices. But developing countries are no more so. (And in many cases less.) We presume they need them; they do not. There are other energy sources, and far more importantly, many more potential and advanced ways of using them with the proper motivation; which current policy not only doesn’t encourage, but massively quashes by not only to some extent subsidizing fossil fuels, but by failing to integrate even a small fraction of the enormous if largely intangible and hard to adequately measure cost of using them, relative to other energy related practices which don’t have nearly the same external affect.
We can also help those countries directly as well. But while assistance to developing countries for deployment of other energy sources, is fine, billions upon billions in assistance as generic help to accomodate for any pledges to “not use fossil fuels,” on the other hand, is probably wasteful. That is – and the fundamental point seemingly being missed or that many simply don’t want to accept – it’s counter productive to use fossil fuels at this point anyway.
Just because some countries are not “advanced” and we see an energy source where it is easy to remain largely oblivious to the enormous external costs, does not make them necessary or even beneficial to strong long term development now. It might have in the past, when conditions (as well as the state of our knowledge) were different. But that was the past.
In addition to assistance for better energy source deployment, the best way we can help these countries is to not only illustrate leadership, but provide motivation and reward toward our own growth, transformation, or improvement (or whatever word we want to use), and help lead the way: both in developing better energy techniques, and in the efficient production of relevant equipment, all of which then brings cost down as well.
And if need be, developed countries can provide direct assistance to developing countries to actually deploy and engage in better processes and practices in lieu of far more harmful energy practices:
Not money “earmarked” for better practices which is then in term distributed internally; but money actually and only given toward such expenditures. This instills that every dollar also goes toward helping them with greater energy capabilities (if this is what they want, and most countries do.) And it would also in turn bring a far bigger direct return, than simply handing countries money in return for pledges to refrain from engaging in an activity or practice which is now also very harmful to their world as well.
But the bottom line is that the idea that since developed countries once relied upon certain energy practices back when the state of knowledge and of the world was what it was (even if we did not adjust quickly enough, due to the same sort of limited thinking that still holds us back today, including when it comes to this very idea that developing countries “need” to develop in the 21st century the way way we did in the early 20th and 19th, when the world was very different), that, developing countries thus “need to” today, is in some ways far fetched.
Say what one will about our mistakes and even current practices; but for the large part of our industrial development, we did not have the same state of knowledge or awareness we have now. And that knowledge is profoundly relevant to the reliance, and continued reliance, upon fossil fuels and multiple counter productive agricultural practices that are also heavily contributing to the vast long term atmospheric alteration problem, somewhat simplistically referred to, as “climate change.”
Another way to say this, if not as illuminating, is that “that was then, this is now.” When we got going, the world didn’t have this knowledge. Now the world does.
And to state or simply presume that it is “unfair” that the world now has this knowledge (before developing or undeveloped countries could become developed) is to once again miss the main point, and engage fully – in fact to embrace – the same flawed thinking that led to this problem and its recent rapid acceleration and compoundment in the first place. And is the same mindset that created the problem, and keeps us from solving it now.
Namely, it once again dismisses the overriding basis that using fossil fuels, along with several of our common agricultural practices, are now (highly) counter productive. So the idea of “you got to do it so we should,” is like telling today’s kids they will grow up to be stronger healthier more vigorous healthier brained adults if they eat good tasting, rich, nutritious, minimally adulterated food and them, rather than a daily binge of Hostess Twinkies, is somehow depriving them because “we got to.”
We got to (those who wanted to) but it was against our interests to do so. Kids today can still eat like crap, but it’s lessening, not increasing, the quality of their lives.
Sure, the fossil fuel thing is complicated by the fact that unlike personal food choices it is not a personal issue, but an external, environmental, unfortunately communal, global one. But the principle is the same. Here’s why:
The world, and in particular the same now just developing countries, will be greatly hurt by the type of climatic shifts that our now geologically radical long term alteration of the atmosphere as a basic matter or increasing earth energy accumulation (currently reflected in a geologically remarkable rate of ocean heat energy accumulation, and accelerating net polar ice melt), is sure to create.
The idea of “you got to do it so we should” is just a more complex form of a near diabetic kid wanting to binge on ding dongs and fruit loops; just the collective version of it. He can do it, it’s his life. But putting the issue of the addictive qualities of sugar aside, armed with the real facts, and being objective, the decision by any reasonable individual would be not to.
Climate change is policy, so the psychology should be more easily removable since we get to decide what policies to implement to inspire the direction we want to take. Whereas an individual has to fight counter productive urges until the habit changes.
And if intellectual, we can change it. (Though we seem intellectually to be addicted to the idea of fossil fuels, or the idea that they are what create the real long term growth that matters, rather than the fact that such growth is ultimately defined by how we grow. But we can change when we realize it.)
But the issue is still about what is in everyone’s unavoidable interests. Not what is in everyone’s interests, but everyone’s unavoidable interests. It is not for us to determine what is in someone else’s interests. But when it comes to the globe, and its climate – thus it’s precipitation patterns, ocean levels, temperature patterns, and relative stability, and wealth – though regions differ, that it one of those few things we share and have to share.
It is this fact that makes a mistake, even one we all contribute to, ultimately far more of a restriction upon inherent rights than some sort of intelligently and moderately, ideally market based design and set of policies that motivate us to efficiently change our own practices, than any reasonably thought out, and where possible choice promoting, set of policies. (Choice promoting to be both consistent with maximizing individual choice, as well as maximizing efficiency and motivation in terms arriving at what is possible for us to do, rather than to do so or even incorrectly presume limitations in advance.)
And the only real argument for a developing country to act counter productively is again the false one that other countries “got to,” as if that was some sort of right, rather than the reflection of circumstances at the time they existed.
But if conditions change so it is a mistake now, the fact that it wasn’t a mistake in the past (or at some point we didn’t fully realize it – or didn’t listen to those many who did – to start adjusting early enough) isn’t relevant to the fact that it is now.
That is, it is a mistake now for all countries, including developing and undeveloped ones – who, ironically are also the ones most likely to be the most harmed by climate change, for a multitude of practial reasons. And particularly many who see their regional precipitation patterns significantly shift.
Also remember, which we seem to forget: Undeveloped countries were also undeveloped, in a world replete with fossil fuels. Now it’s a world that needs to move forward and cease our ongoing atmospheric alteration – again we’ve already changed the long term composition of long lived green house gases to levels not seen on earth in millions of years, and are still adding at geologically breakneck speed to it.
And ignoring or dismissing that reality based on some archaic if not romantic notion that creating a reliance upon fossil fuels is a rite of economic passage, is part of the same mindset that needs to be changed to even begin to effectively mitigate thisproblem in the first place.
In sum, making the “same mistake” now (i.e., developing with fossil fuels), is not the same mistake; and for two very key reasons:
First, the impact, upon an already now radically altered atmosphere, is more relevant, as the world’s overall energy demands and population grow further climatic changes and shifts accrue; most of which we haven’t even felt yet, as the heat energy balance of the earth is being radically altered as our oceans gain heat at a geologically remarkable rate, and perhaps even more notably our land based polar ice caps (in addition to the ocean, the earth’s temperate stabilizing forces) have started to melt, and are doing so now at a rapidly accelerating rate at both ends of the globe.
Second, and more importantly, we again have the knowledge and awareness that we didn’t have before.
Thus, again, “that was then, this is now.”
It’s not necessarily sensible, as nations, to just do something because “this is the way it was always done,” say, by other nations. As nations we act sensibly based upon the knowledge and circumstances of the time period in which we are in. And when it comes to our prior energy patterns, that knowledge fairly clearly says (some skeptics still disagree, but again see the pattern of such disagreement, as well as some fairly remarkable geologic signs of change starting to take place,) its now not sensible to continue to do this, whether we’ve gotten used to it (most developed nations), we’re in the process of getting used to it (developing nations), or we haven’t yet even gotten used to it (undeveloped nations.) .
Essentially, when it comes to the issue of atmospheric alteration, the state of knowledge, as well as relevant circumstances, have now changed radically. So the idea that “you got to do it, so now developing countries should ” doesn’t make sense any more. The idea may seem reasonable upon superficial examination, and the belief that it is so is apparently widespread; but, again, it misses the entire point of why this is a problem in the first place.
Thus, by entering into an agreement with China that in affect validates the lack of any real current action on China’s part, we have only further entrenched this line of thinking, and further validated some sort of heavily presumptive and misplaced “right” to, or sensibility in, doing something which no longer makes sense.
And, in the process of entering into just such an agreement, we also make it appear as if we would be demanding more of China if and when (and there will be a when), we realize China needs to do far more, more quickly. In other words, we started an ongoing pattern of negotiation from not just a position of weakness, but from one that was counter productive:
We acted like we “got” something. Yet what we got was negative, as it would have been better to either hold China to a greater commitment, or otherwise engage in no agreement at all and thus get something of value in our (later) very first agreement, while gaining great value in terms of good faith negotiating and pressure on Europe and the rest of the world (including China for meaningful action), by acting unilaterally to start to temper the problem and show leadership.
There are arguments that this agreement with China is also “symbolic.” But the issue is about how to best solve this. Not symbolism. And the point of the foregoing is to show that the symbolism doesn’t have much meaning other than to show what we could have more effectively shown by unilateral action, and which the world now knows anyway. Instead, it was symbolism that furthered – to go back to Einstein’s concept once again – the same mindset that we need to get away from:
That is, the presumption that it is some sort of huge sacrifice, rather than a benefit, to stop doing what is against or long term interests, and that there is some sort of inherent economic rite of passage need to rely upon the same types of energy sources that now developed countries once did back when both the state of the world, and our knowledge of it, were different.
Again, what’s also extremely key, is that had we shown symbolism by unilateral action, our bargaining power would have greatly increased. Now it’s weak. Sure, we acted. But not with much commitment. And we seemed to have only done that “If” we got China to act. (With, again, making this worse, we really didn’t get China to act.)
We showed a tit for tat, and thus did not further the unavoidable collective aspect and need a growth in perspective, but instead the mistaken presumption that doing what is in our best long term interests is some sort of “sacrifice” that we’ll only do in return for something, not because it’s the right thing to do. (And when the real sacrifice is, again, not doing, what is in our best long term interests to do.)
That undermines our moral and practical bargaining power with other nations, a power that could have been greatly amplified had we still acted unilaterally and openly in the event of a failure to get China to agree to real meaningful, current and increasing reductions,
The fact that we are the de-facto leader of the free world, and that we have also been by far the greatest contributor to this problem, while again only comprising a small fraction of the world’s population, only further – and greatly – increases the importance of creating good faith by showing some resolve to solve, and of showing leadership; not tit for tat as if we are having our teeth pulled.
Agreements can be a key influence. But not weak ones that declare largely irrelevant, later, minor action while validating the same bad pattern. In those cases, agreements are also influences; but they are bad ones. So the idea that his agreement sets the stage for European action – as if our unilateral action in good faith, along with calls for meaningful change by China, wouldn’t do so and do so better, or that Europe doesn’t know they need to act but just wants to see us act and show leadership – is flawed.
Seeing China act could add a little to future potential for action. But seeing China essentially not act, while we call it action and meaningful, only adds that counter productive idea to the European outlook. And, as opposed to good faith unilateral action on our part, accompanied by reasoned pressure for relevant Chinese adjustment, it weakens it.
In short, the agreement was strategically misplaced on just about every level imaginable. Yet to improve our own future and the world’s (relatively speaking, anyway), and most importantly from a perspective of integrity, the world we leave our kids and grand kids, we need to do better. And we can do a lot better.
When we show leadership on this issue, the world is much more likely to follow, not less likely. And the similarly popular idea that it is not sensible to act because our own actions can barely affect the issue, is misplaced. (Although that idea seems to be most passionately advocated by climate change “skeptics,” who again often follow any line or argument, whether it is against action, whether it is against the efficacy of action, whether it is against the science of climate change itself, or even whether it is that climate change is “good” because “plants use carbon dioxide.”)
With our action, any subsequent action by other nations now has far more effect, since their action compounds with ours. And those nations also know it only increases the likelihood even further of cooperation on the part of other nations, and even further cooperation from those most enthusiastically committed to improving our response to this problem, and ameliorating (or at least mitigating) it. And which group – given the basic science of the issue ( the sudden fantastic “scientific acumen” of American Tea-Partiers , who are by far and away the largest “climate change is a joke” advocacy group) – we, the United States, the de-facto world leader, should be amongst.
Most importantly of all, subsequent action after our own proper exhibition is far more likely not just because of the increasing compounding potential that further contributions then provide, but, because our good faith provides a leadership example to the rest of the world, there is far more of a natural reciprocal tendency to want to cooperate. (Particularly on an issue where all other nations know it is in their long term interests to do so.) And by acting, we as the leading world power and long time contributor to the problem also now have far more moral authority on the issue to speak, advocate, and help influence. Right now we have none.
Thus the idea that action on our part is worthless because it is a “global” issue, is mistaken.
As has been our approach so far – aptly illustrated by the recent China deal.
Part of the blueprint on how to improve it as we go forward, at least when it comes to a few fundamental ideas, is in the analysis above as to why the China deal was probably more of a mistake than an achievement, hard as that might at the moment – wanting “good news” – to accept.
But accepting it, starting with those in the current presidential administration and Congress who understand (or accept), the relevant science on the issue, will help pave the way for far more meaningful good news and advancement.