Last week was good for environmentalists, and perhaps even for the environment. President Obama doubled down on his effort to increase the likelihood of the success of the 2015 UN climate change conference in Paris, claiming the U.S. has “a special responsibility to lead. That’s what great nations do.” He took the occasion of the UN meetings in New York to put the heat on China, the world’s largest polluter, to match the steps the U.S. is taking to reduce its CO2 emissions. The president is relying on executive orders to by-pass Congress and put in place stricter control of power plant emissions. He must believe that if he has the power to order such reductions without consulting Congress, surely the leaders of the somewhat less democratic Chinese regime can rely on similar fiats. He also believes that if the world’s two largest emitters agree on a program to reduce these greenhouse gasses, the third, fourth, and fifth largest polluters will sign on to that program.
· China’s president Xi Jinping (#1) did not come to New York.
· Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India (#3), although in New York, gave the climate meeting a miss, and his environment minister asked, “What cuts? That’s for more developed countries. The moral principle of historic responsibility cannot be washed away.”
· Russian president Vladimir Putin (#4) is more interested in developing a plan to step up his challenge to NATO than to scale down his nation’s emission.
· Japan (#5), wants to keep open its options to burn more fossil fuels since the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.
Equally unfortunate is the difficulty of agreeing on a common set of facts as the background for a policy debate. There are studies showing that the climate is warming, and others that show it hasn’t done so for a couple of decades. There are studies showing that solar and wind power are now competitive with fossil fuels even in the absence of subsidies, and others showing that replacing fossil fuels with greater reliance on renewables that are not available when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine can drive up energy costs and reduce a nation’s competitiveness, as has happened in Germany, in the end forcing greater reliance on coal than at any time since 2007.
To make matters even more difficult for policymakers, poorer developing countries say climate change has been created by the rich, industrialized countries, and are demanding that the costs of solving the problem be borne by those beneficiaries of the age of fossil fuels. (See statement above by Prakash Javadekar of India.) They want a rather substantial income transfer to developing from developed countries, a long-standing goal only recently tied to the desire to reduce carbon emissions. And they want developed countries to reduce their emissions so that emerging economies can increase theirs without driving the global total to threatening levels. They like to note that the EU has managed to reduce its emissions sharply, ignoring the facts that it did so by presiding over a recession and by importing more and more goods produced in China’s heavily emitting manufacturing plants.
The president’s renewed drive for a Paris deal was not the only good news for those who believe the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is imperative if a climate disaster is to be avoided. An estimated 300,000 activists, including former vice president Al Gore and marchers calling for the end of capitalism, the latter tussling with New York’s finest for the control of Wall Street, turned out in New York City to support a reduction in emissions. So did the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio. He announced he would reduce New York’s emissions by 80 percent by 2050, presumably by putting pressure on real estate developers who need his approval of their construction permits.
The frosting on environmentalists’ cake came when the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced it would divest shares in companies producing fossil fuels. It could not be determined whether John D. Rockefeller, the fund’s founder who also founded the modern petroleum industry, is spinning in his grave or, as his heirs contend, would be a leader in the switch to renewables. But it is certain he would have noticed that the family’s $2 million investment in renewables was wiped out.