President Biden laid down a climate marker in his inaugural address: “A cry for survival comes from the planet itself. A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear.”
He returned to the theme in his speech last week to the Munich Security Conference, calling the climate crisis “existential.”
For environmentalists, those are welcome words. The Trump years saw the U.S. leave the Paris Agreement while pursuing aggressive deregulation at home. Climate change is now back on the national agenda.
There are two mistakes observers can make about this new era of climate diplomacy. The first is to think it won’t last or will be limited to rhetoric.
Climate skeptics and fossil-fuel interests should brace themselves. The fight to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions and to shift the world’s energy systems toward much lower emissions isn’t going away.
Key positions up and down the government bureaucracy will be filled by committed greens who have thought long and hard about how to use the powers of the regulatory state to achieve green goals.
A host of new policies—and new regulations—are sure to come.
Those who dismiss ideas like the “green new deal” as mere left-wing fantasies miss the enormous appeal of these programs for corporations looking for new business opportunities.
It isn’t only renewable energy companies looking for government mandates and funding.
It’s major auto manufacturers dreaming of replacing every gasoline-powered car and truck on the planet with an electric vehicle—and reaping the public-relations reward of looking virtuous. It’s construction companies looking to replace the existing energy infrastructure.
But if skeptics underestimate the effect the climate movement will have on the world’s economy, greens are in danger of overestimating how much their efforts will help the polar bears.
Paradoxically, as climate change assumes a more prominent place on the international agenda, climate activists will lose influence over climate policy.
Geopolitics and greed will get in the way. Greens see climate change as an existential threat to all humanity against which every country should unite.
That is not how the world works. Countries inevitably see even the most urgent global problems through the lens of their own interests.
Countries don’t look at the climate problem with the same urgency or in the same way. Russia likes to sell oil and gas, wants the Arctic to become a major shipping route, and—despite some issues with tundra melt—doesn’t worry that Siberia will grow too warm.
Germany is locked into high-cost energy policies by domestic politics and the facts of geography. German industry would like to protect itself from imports made in countries where energy remains cheaper.
The U.S. is so rich in cheap oil and gas that climate policy is a heavy political lift—and no binding climate treaty is likely to gain the two-thirds Senate majority for ratification.
In New Delhi, no government can accept international agreements that slow India’s economic rise.
Many Brazilians believe that the development of the Amazon basin is essential to their national future and won’t accept international limits on their activities there.
Westerners don’t need to bribe Beijing into environmentalism with political or economic concessions. China has more to fear from climate change than any other great power.
Some of its major river systems depend on vulnerable Himalayan glaciers; its agricultural areas depend on rainfall patterns that climate change threatens to disrupt; its coast is exposed to devastating typhoons.
Reducing China’s dependence on imported fuel eases Beijing’s fear that American sea power could cut it off from necessary resources in the event of a major crisis. China stands to benefit from a shift to electric cars and has invested heavily in solar panel and battery technology.
Yet this green zeal comes with “Chinese characteristics,” to use Deng Xiaoping’s phrase. China’s booming solar-power industry is heavily coal-dependent and based in Xinjiang. Are solar panels built with forced labor OK? Who decides?
Industry will also gain power over climate policy as climate moves up the world’s priority list. Business lobbies around the world are experts in regulatory capture and in diverting subsidies and mandates to serve corporate interests.
It won’t be the greenest possible grid that wins the political contest; it will be the system that provides the most-entrenched interests with the highest rents that the best PR firms can present as sufficiently green.
As lobbyists and green entrepreneurs rush to cash in on one of history’s greatest bonanzas, pigs will be adorned in green lipstick and white elephants dipped in green dye.
When it comes to determining priorities in our new green world, one thing’s for sure. The polar bears won’t get a vote.
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