Paris Climate of Conformity
It pays to be skeptical of politicians who claim to be saving the planet.
The moment to be wariest of political enthusiasms is precisely when elite opinion is all lined up on one side. So it is with the weekend agreement out of Paris on climate policy, which President Obama declared with his familiar modesty “can be a turning point for the world” and is “the best chance we have to save the one planet that we’ve got.”
Forgive us for looking through the legacy smoke, but if climate change really does imperil the Earth, and we doubt it does, nothing coming out of a gaggle of governments and the United Nations will save it. What will help is human invention and the entrepreneurial spirit. To the extent the Paris accord increases political control over human and natural resources, it will make the world poorer and technological progress less likely.
The climate confab’s self-described political success is rooted in a conceit and a bribe. The conceit is that the terms of the agreement will have some tangible impact on global temperatures. The big breakthrough is supposed to be that for the first time developing and developed countries have committed to reducing carbon emissions. But the commitments by these nations are voluntary with no enforcement mechanism.
China (the No. 1 CO2 emitter) and India (No. 3 after the U.S.) have made commitments that they may or may not honor, depending on whether they can meet them without interfering with economic growth. If the choice is lifting millions out of poverty or reducing CO2, poverty reduction will prevail—as it should.
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No less than the supposedly true global-warming believers of Europe are also happy about voluntary commitments because Paris liberates them from the binding targets of the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. Germany’s high energy costs in particular have been driving companies offshore thanks to its renewable energy costs and mandates.
But no one is happier than President Obama, who would have to submit a binding treaty to the Senate for ratification. As we have learned from the Iran nuclear deal and so much else, Mr. Obama is not into winning democratic consent for his policy dreams. Mr. Obama plans to use Paris as a stick to beat Republicans even as he ducks a vote in Congress. We doubt the Paris climate deal would get 40 Senate votes once Democrats in Ohio, Colorado or North Dakota were forced to debate the costs.
Mr. Obama’s U.S. CO2-reduction targets are fanciful in any case, short of a major technological breakthrough. The President promises that the U.S. will reduce carbon emissions by 26% to 28% from 2005 levels by 2025, but the specific means he has proposed to get there would only yield about half that. And that’s assuming none of Mr. Obama’s unilateral regulatory policies are declared illegal by U.S. courts.
As for the bribe, rich countries in Paris bought the cooperation of the developing world by promising to send $100 billion a year in climate aid. So the governments of the West are now going to dun their taxpayers to transfer money to the clean and green governments run by the likes of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. We can’t wait to see New York’s Chuck Schumer make the case on the Senate floor for American aid to China so it can become more energy efficient and economically competitive.
Even if a Democratic Congress made these bribes politically possible, they would do little to ease the consequences of climate change. The world’s poor can best cope with climate harm if they are richer, which requires faster economic growth. Yet everything we know about economic development is that foreign aid retards growth when it expands the reach of Third World governments. Poor countries won’t be helped by subsidies for solar cells delivered through the World Bank.
The same lesson goes for the developed world, by the way. We still recall the George W. Bush economic adviser who told us in 2006 that subsidies for cellulosic ethanol were justified because a breakthrough was “just around the corner.” He said the problem was that Congress’s research grants were distorted by political earmarks.
Of course they were. Congress took Mr. Bush’s invitation and force-fed ethanol mandates into law despite the lack of available technology to meet them. A decade later cellulosic ethanol is still around the corner.
Which brings us to the development on the fringes of Paris that might do some good. Bill Gates is hitting up his fellow billionaires to pay for research into energy alternatives to fossil fuels. This is a tacit admission that the technology doesn’t exist to make alternatives cost-effective no matter how many subsidies governments offer. If carbon energy’s efficiency and wealth creation are going to be displaced, the world will need advances in battery storage and nuclear energy, among other things.
The grandiose claims of triumph in Paris represent the self-interest of a political elite that wants more control over the private economy in the U.S. and around the world. These are the last people who will save the planet.