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Negotiating Climate Change
10/01/2005

There has been some recent, interesting debate on Canadian blogs about global warming. This last bit has begun with a post on stageleft titled "nope, no evidence at all", and was seconded on The Heart of the Matter with The Denial Saga Continues. Andrew at Bound by Gravity offered a counter-point with Debunking the Alarmists' Logic. Follow-ups here and here.

Most of this discussion has been about whether or not global warming is a real, human-caused phenomenon. I don't have much to add to that debate. However, questioning the science is not the only way critics have opposed the current response to climate change. The Kyoto Protocol has also been attacked for a variety of other supposed flaws.

This begs the question:

What should we do if we agree that humans are causing climate change through greenhouse gas emissions and also agree that this is a serious problem that ought to be addressed?

If we suppose hypothetically that the people of the world agree that we need to cut back on greenhouse gases, and if we take the world's current political organization as a given, what are we left with? It seems that the only approach is a negotiation between nation-states to determine who will cut by how much. That's what happened in Kyoto.

Critics claim that certain aspects of Kyoto are flawed, and that the deal is unfair and ineffective. They point out that developing economies like China and India do not have the same requirement to cut back their emissions. In fact, they are allowed to grow them! How can such a deal be successful in reducing climate change?

Kyoto also includes a market-oriented approach that allows for trading of emissions credits. This means that, for example, a plan to cut emissions in China can, with financial compensation, be credited in favour of a industrialized nation like the United States.

When the tougher requirements for rich countries to cut back are combined with the financial implications of emissions trading, it is not surprising that some right-wingers have accused Kyoto of being "a global tax on American prosperity... a direct wealth transfer from rich to poor nations". But, while I am not familiar with all the little details of Kyoto, I'd challenge conservatives to come up with a plan that is dramatically better in terms of fairness and also politically acceptable to the negotiating parties. (That is, once they accept the premise of this article.)

Imagine the sort of negotiation that must have taken place over the many meetings that created Kyoto. It couldn't have been easy:

UNITED STATES: Since we have already agreed to cut back global emissions to 1990 levels, it seems fair that each nation should cut back to that same level. So, the United States, China, and all other countries should agree to a target of national emissions in 2012 being equal to their national emissions in 1990.

CHINA: That does not seem fair to us. Reducing global emissions to 1990 levels will bring us to a total of 700-billion units*. Since the world's population is 7-billion, each country should be permitted 100 GHG emission units per capita.

[*-- I made these units up... the actual number doesn't matter]

Well, I'm not sure how you resolve that one. And it doesn't seem obvious to me which side has the better argument. If anything, the Chinese argument would seem to have more merit, but the negotiation seems to have ended up closer to the American position. The point is that a valid debate like this in the world community gets determined by some sort of negotiation, and we've done that already. The deal it produced is Kyoto.

So, if my fellow bloggers come to a consensus that humans are causing climate change and that that's a bad thing, it would seem to me that they can jump right from there to endorsing Kyoto participation.

(For the record, I calculated before that if the world adopted a plan in which we'd revert to 1990 emissions levels, and each country would be permitted a per-capita share of the total, the United States would be required to reduce not by the current 6%, but by 86%! Sounds like Kyoto isn't such a raw deal after all.)


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