The Triumph of Climate Pragmatism

Wirth and Daschle Argue Against Binding Global Caps on Emissions

For the better part of two decades, a small group of policy scholars and climate policy advocates have argued that the United Nations' climate treaty efforts were doomed. Caps on emissions, and other efforts that make fossil fuels more expensive, would fail in world where competitive alternative fuels don't exist, and where billions of people need to consume more, not less, energy. As such, the recent call by former senators Tim Wirth and Tom Daschle to abandon binding emissions limits, and instead to embrace technology innovation to make clean energy cheap, can be fairly described as the triumph of climate pragmatism.

But it wasn’t until the collapse of United Nations talks in Copenhagen in 2009 that mainstream environmental leaders and policymakers started taking the criticism seriously. Now, two close environmental and liberal allies of President Obama, former senators Tim Wirth and Tom Daschle, have called for the whole treaty framework of mandatory emissions limits to be scrapped. In a long essay for the widely-respected environmental magazine, Yale Environment 360, they argue that the Kyoto climate treaty framework

"depends on national governments, whose first responsibility is to their own people and well-being. For that reason, the climate negotiations have faltered. Nations could not agree on who is to blame, on how to allocate emissions, or on projections for the future."

Wirth’s abandonment of binding limits is particularly significant. Wirth was lead negotiator for the Kyoto treaty. He and Daschle have long been close to the President and his climate advisor John Podesta, who chaired Wirth’s Energy Future’s Coalition.

As such, the publication of the essay yesterday can fairly be described as the moment the progressive establishment finally walked away from the dream of binding global pollution limits — and the triumph of climate pragmatism. In place of an “impossible all-encompassing top-down agreement” predicated on shared sacrifice, Wirth and Daschle write, what is needed is “an approach that builds on national self-interest and spurs a ‘race to the top’ in low-carbon energy solutions.”

The essay echoes arguments that scholars such as Steve Rayner, David Victor, Mike Hulme, Roger Pielke, Jr., and Dan Sarewitz have made for nearly two decades. In 1997, Rayner argued in Nature that top-down pollution limits ignore development concerns of poor countries, and couldn’t succeed. In 2000, Pielke Jr. and Sarewitz argued in The Atlantic that climate policy should focus on energy innovation and adaptation, not carbon controls. And in 2008, we published an essay in Democracy Journal arguing that the focus on making fossil energy more expensive needs to be replaced by multilateral efforts among major emitters to make clean energy cheap.

In the years since, the four of us have coauthored a series of essays and reports, including The Hartwell Paper, Climate Pragmatism, and Our High-Energy Planet, which lay out a new framework for international action. That framework focuses on actions that help societies mitigate and adapt to climate change while offering social, environmental, and economic benefits in the present-day, rather than in the distant future.

Lowering energy costs through technological innovation, cleaning up the air, expanding modern energy services to the global poor, and making societies more resilient to natural disasters are all types of actions that benefit people today, while also helping us mitigate and adapt to changes in the climate in the future.

Focusing on innovation and ecological modernization is more consistent with American culture and history as well as the larger project of human development, making for better policy and politics. Wirth and Daschle agree, arguing that moving from a focus on global carbon caps to bottom-up measures to build cleaner and more prosperous economies

would change the psychology of the climate change issue from one of burden to opportunity, and change the likely outcome from one of hand-wringing about failure to excitement about tangible action to build a better world.

There is still much work to be done. Wirth and Daschle remain overly wedded to the idea that policies to address climate change must be motivated centrally by catastrophic fears of climate change. In reality, where progress has been made – whether in the current U.S. shift from coal to gas, the French build-out of nuclear energy in the 70s and 80s, or increased resilience to tropical cyclones in India – the motivations primarily have been driven by non-climate change related priorities. And Wirth and Daschle remain overly focused on renewable energy and carbon pricing as central mitigation strategies, despite the fact that neither has done much in the real world to reduce emissions.

But what matters most is the larger message the two men are delivering. Effective action to address climate change will focus on pragmatic actions at the national level. Commitments from nations to enact specific measures that have demonstrable impact on emissions and resilience – replacing dirty energy technologies with cleaner ones, developing low carbon technologies that can broadly scale without need of heavy ongoing subsidization, and building communities that are more resilient to natural disasters of all sorts, whether caused by anthropogenic climate change or not – are likely to be more effective than negotiations aimed at establishing arbitrary and ultimately unenforceable emissions targets.

Old paradigms die hard, especially for those who helped build them. Wirth and Dashle should be applauded for taking a hard look at the failure of the framework they helped construct, and for coming to the conclusion that it was time to move on.