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Climate Pragmatism: Innovation, Resilience and No Regrets

July 26, 2011
| Reports
In an essay in a thought-provoking report on climate change, Rob Atkinson explains that success in this policy area rests in many ways on making clean energy affordable. Acknowledging that coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear and various alternative sources are part of the energy picture, he suggests tapping them for revenue needed to advance clean energy innovation. The report, Climate Pragmatism, authored by a broad group of 14 scholars and analysts assembled under the aegis of the Hartwell group, details an innovative strategy to restart global climate efforts after the collapse of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. This pragmatic strategy centers on efforts to accelerate energy innovation, build resilience to extreme weather, and pursue no regrets pollution reduction measures — three efforts that each have their own diverse justifications independent of their benefits for climate mitigation and adaptation. As such, Climate Pragmatism offers a framework for renewed American leadership on climate change that's effectiveness, paradoxically, does not depend on any agreement about climate science or the risks posed by uncontrolled greenhouse gases

Future historians of efforts to address climate change will almost certainly look back on 2010 as the end of one era and the beginning of another. The first began with the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and ended with the negotiation of the Copenhagen Accord in December 2009. By the Cancún talks in late 2010, the emphasis of international negotiations had shifted from efforts to establish legally binding emissions limits to more modest agreements to invest in new energy technology, transfer technology among nations, and support climate resilience efforts in the developing world.

If efforts in this direction are redoubled, this shift of priorities could redeem international climate cooperation. What’s more, as the old framework has collapsed, new American leadership to address global energy, economic, and environmental challenges also becomes possible. In recognition of this reality, a group of scholars and analysts recently convened in Washington, DC to discuss the potential for renewed American engagement on climate change and the development of a strategy that’s effectiveness, paradoxically, would not depend on any agreement about climate science and the risks posed by uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions. Climate Pragmatism is the result of that meeting and is co-authored by several of the same scholars who produced The Hartwell Paper.

The old climate framework failed because it would have imposed substantial costs associated with climate mitigation policies on developed nations today in exchange for climate benefits far off in the future — benefits whose attributes, magnitude, timing, and distribution are not knowable with certainty. Since they risked slowing economic growth in many emerging economies, efforts to extend the Kyoto-style UNFCCC framework to developing nations predictably deadlocked as well.

The new framework now emerging will succeed to the degree to which it prioritizes agreements that promise near-term economic, geopolitical, and environmental benefits to political economies around the world, while simultaneously reducing climate forcings, developing clean and affordable energy technologies, and improving societal resilience to climate impacts. This new approach recognizes that continually deadlocked international negotiations and failed domestic policy proposals bring no climate benefit at all. It accepts that only sustained effort to build momentum through politically feasible forms of action will lead to accelerated decarbonization.

If this new era is to be led at all, it will be led primarily by example, not global treaty. The Copenhagen Accord is one of essentially voluntary actions among major emitters. The accord perpetuates the conceit that international negotiations will ultimately include legally binding emissions reduction targets, but in reality, the emissions targets will be unenforceable and thus constitute aspirational goals, not binding limits. That reality became ever clearer at UNFCCC negotiations in Cancún in December 2010. The substantive parts of the Copenhagen Accord are the new multilateral agreements to invest in new energy technology, slow deforestation, and build disaster resilience — far better grounds for global cooperation than unenforceable emissions targets and timetables.

A new climate strategy should take a page from one of America’s greatest homegrown traditions — pragmatism — which values pluralism over universalism, flexibility over rigidity, and practical results over utopian ideals. Where the UNFCCC imagined it could motivate nations to cooperatively enforce top-down emissions reductions with mathematical precision, US policymakers should acknowledge that today’s global, social, and ecological systems are too messy, open, and complicated to be governed in this way. Whereas the UNFCCC attempted to create new systems of global governance, a pragmatic approach would build upon established, successful institutions and proven approaches. Where the old climate policy regime tried to discipline a wildly diverse set of policies under a single global treaty, the new era must allow these policies and measures to stand—and evolve—independently and according to their own logic and merits. And where the old regime required that everyone band together around the same core motivation and goals, policymakers today are likely to make the most progress to the degree that they refrain from centrally justifying energy innovation, resilience to extreme weather, and pollution reduction as “climate policy.”

Energy innovation, resilience to extreme weather, and no regrets pollution reduction — each of these goals has its own diverse justifications:

  • Support for energy innovation today comes from those concerned about the high (and rising) economic costs, not to mention the foreign entanglements created by America’s dependence on oil; the need for greater energy access in poor countries; diseases and deaths caused by air pollution, oil and gas drilling, and coal mining and waste; and the potential for America to manufacture and export new energy technologies at a profit. All of these motivations play to America’s strengths, and each can assemble a strong coalition of support.
  • Rich and poor countries alike are vulnerable to a wide range of complex socio-technical disasters, some climate change-related, some not. Domestically, Hurricane Katrina and the recent Mississippi flooding provide compelling rationale for improving resilience to extreme weather events, whether they are exacerbated by climate change or not. Internationally, US support to build disaster resilience in developing countries is strong and longstanding, and US foreign aid remains the highest in the world. When harnessed to build resilience to extreme weather and disasters, both domestic and international efforts will be more successful.
  • And motivated by a clear desire to protect public health, the United States has long been a global leader in the development and deployment of pollution abatement technologies, from the creation of smokestack scrubbers to the invention of alternatives to ozone depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). A redoubling of such efforts can yield simultaneous progress to reduce climate forcings.

Globally, almost all of the important action occurring on energy innovation and adoption has occurred and is occurring in support of one or more of this diverse set of reasons, not just climate change. The only two countries in the world to have significantly decarbonized their energy sectors over recent decades, Sweden and France, did so in response to oil shocks, not environmental fears. Last fall, the Indian government imposed a small fee on coal consumption, not for climate mitigation, but to fund advanced energy development to meet future energy needs. In October 2011, the Japanese government plans to begin gradual tax increases on coal, oil, and natural gas, fuels the nation lacks in any abundance, in order to raise an estimated $3 billion (¥240 billion) annually by 2015 to fund the development and adoption of advanced energy technologies. When fully phased in, the fossil energy tax will amount to just 3.6 cents per gallon of gasoline (¥0.76 per liter). Likewise, efforts are ongoing from the Netherlands and Japan to the Maldives and India to build greater resilience to the vagaries of nature, including better infrastructure, emergency planning, and resilient design of everything from sea walls and skyscrapers to food crops. Meanwhile, the development of crops that are resilient to climate stresses, such as drought, has proceeded irrespective of specific predictions of anthropogenic warming impacts, and nations continually pursue cost effective improvements in public health and environmental quality.

For the United States and other nations to effectively pursue energy innovation, resilience to extreme weather, and pollution reduction, policymakers must make a clean break from the pitched and polarizing climate wars of the last twenty years and embrace a more pluralistic and pragmatic approach. Already, the international community is moving in the right direction. In mid-January, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon announced that the focus of his efforts would shift away from climate and toward accelerating the development and deployment of clean energy, especially in the developing world.4 China presses ahead with the deployment of new, low-carbon energy technologies to enhance security of supply, improve public health conditions, and build a profitable new domestic manufacturing sector. And President Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union Address focused squarely on energy innovation in the context of economic renewal and competitiveness, rather than climate change.