Breaking Through the Stalemate
By Frank N. Laird, Breakthrough Senior Fellow
"There is chaos under heaven, and the situation is excellent."
-Duke in Doonesbury, doing a parody of Mao
NPR reports this morning that negotiations at the G-8 over climate
change are stalled. The United States does not want to commit to
anything serious unless China and India also do so, and China and India
won't move until the United States does, a classic stalemate.
The temptation, of course, is to just wait until the next
administration takes office, on the hope they will be more
accommodating in reaching an international agreement and committing the
United States the major cuts in greenhouse gases. Most climate
watchers assume that is why the Conference of the Parties want to wait
until the negotiations scheduled for Copenhagen in December 2009 for
reaching a post-Kyoto climate agreement. But if the negotiations are
just trying to create another Kyoto-type treaty, their wait may be in
I doubt that any president is going to get 67 votes in the Senate for a treaty that imposes serious economic costs on the United States but does not include China and India (or, more expansively, the BRIC countries; Brazil, Russia, India, and China). And since no one has suggested any way of regulating greenhouse gases except to raise their price (carbon tax, cap and trade, etc.), there is no way of avoiding the economic costs of serious regulation. Since the vast majority of the nations that did ratify Kyoto failed to meet their reduction targets, it seems pointless to get into bitter fights to get countries to commit to even tougher standards that they also can't meet.
The only way to break this stalemate is to completely reframe the policy problem. That's why the Breakthrough Institute's approach is so important here. A policy that focuses on innovation and the rapid diffusion of clean energy technologies can break this logjam. No one has to turn their back on earlier positions. The process avoids the pointless debate about how to "fairly" share the burdens of regulatory costs. It makes possible new political alignments in the negotiations, bringing the BRIC countries on board while at the same time putting the OECD countries into the position of leading the charge of innovation and commercialization, something for which they already have strong or growing constituencies.
It will take some time to work out the institutional details of such a policy. Should there be a new, centralized international agency or a set of programs dispersed among the existing agencies and coordinated by a secretariat or some board of advisors? How independent should the effort be of traditional organizations like the UN and World Bank? Several groups are working on these problems and they'll ultimately be resolved by the negotiators. The main point now is that a constructive international treaty needs a new approach, and that approach should focus on innovation.