Taking the long view on Waxman Markey

I haven’t really had the energy to try to say anything clever about the American Clean Energy and Security Act — better known as Waxman Markey — primarily because of this: it makes little sense to view Waxman Markey as anything other than a single, big step in a multinational negotiation that is unfolding over a period of at least twenty years. Roughly ten of those years have already gone by, leaving us with about ten more to go.

Take a moment to stroll through the New York Times archive of articles on the Kyoto Protocol, beginning in 1997, when 170 countries came together to pose binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions. An historic event!

But those countries punted on all the contentious details, and what follows is a grindingly incremental series of setbacks and advancements. Three years later, parties to the treaty are still arguing about basic obligations. A few months after that, the U.S. formally walks away from the pact. Eventually, the international trading system at the heart of the pact launches — and is immediately beset by problems, both real and perceived.

Bureaucrats continue to tinker with the system, and by 2008 it actually appears that it might be working. Europe is poised to meet its Kyoto targets! Then the world plunges into a financial crisis, and the ensuing economic contraction obscures whatever good effects the treaty might be having.

Now, in 2009, the U.S. is internally negotiating a climate bill while simultaneously trying to reach some kind of detente with China over greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is furiously positioning itself in advance of the talks in Copenhagen six months from now that will determine the fate of Kyoto’s successor treaty.

(About those China talks: “As a senior American team arrived in Beijing on Sunday for climate talks, the standoff was taking on the trappings of cold-war arms control negotiations…’This is going to be one of the most complex diplomatic negotiations in the history of the world,’ said Representative Edward J. Markey.”)

Of course, even in the context of this grand sweep, little details like permit allocations still matter, and it’s perfectly appropriate for partisans to sweat the small stuff. It does surprise me, though, how little remarked the big picture seems to be. Given the insane complexity of this problem, it still seems to me that the most important thing is to get things moving rather than to get things exactly right. As we all know, the climate system doesn’t care about diplomatic niceties, and the clock is ticking.

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adam

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  1. michael - June 10, 2009

    I sometimes wonder Adam (cynically?), do other countries have to wave their big stick before they too realize the big stick really meant nothing?
    Do they have to have their own WWII victory, test a few nukes – or use them – drive their economies to the brink of excess before they realize that working together in a world with limited/finite resources is perhaps a more meaningful path to survival?
    It’s an interesting psychological perspective…

  2. richard schumacher - June 10, 2009

    We should be able to make real progress now. China and India have huge incentives to reduce global warming: China doesn’t want the social disruption caused by a collapse of agriculture and the drowning of its coastal cities, and India doesn’t want to deal with 100 million refugees forced out of Bangladesh by sea-level rise. The United States has pretty much the same exposure.

  3. Julian Cole - June 17, 2009

    It is amazing that so few people (including probably no-one in government) seem to realize that this is a life-and-death issue for our grandchildren, and that the era of growth is over.
    Still, so long as we think we have that big stick, it will comfort us, won’t it….???? (even if it only gives us the ability to say “no” to anything except more consumption).