The Axis of Ostriches

A map showing just how isolated the USA is in its do-nothing policy on climate change.

A map in a report on the climate negotiations by the Smith Institute at Oxford University (page 3) rates countries by their commitment to reducing carbon emissions:

Making all the caveats – the rating is a bit subjective, and applies to public policy stances not actual achievements – the isolation of the USA is remarkable. Its objective allies in the do-nothing caucus are only Canada, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. (Almost-as-bad Australia has just moved smartly into deeper green).

What’s the explanation? The RBC has to rule out the wingnut theory that the governments of >100 variegated countries, the EU members, China, India, Brazil, even Venezuela and Togo, have all been taken in by a deeply hidden and many-tentacled conspiracy of climate scientists and environmental activists – the Elders of Eden, so to speak. Better candidates:

* Theocracy: covers Iran, Saudi Arabia and to some extent the US, but not Canada..
* The Murdoch media: covers the USA (and Australia), but not the others; and Murdoch is influential in Britain, which has a activist policy.
* Organized denialism: SFIK a similar distribution to the Murdoch empire, not accidentally. Denialists in Denmark (Lomborg) and France (Allègre) are not influential.
* Fossil fuel producers: covers all, but weakly correlated if you look at the others as well. China and India dig a lot of coal, Venezuela, Norway and Russia are major oil and gas producers.
* Exceptionalism in a general cultural way: my best bet. Covers Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the USA, plus Australia. The outlier is Canada, a me-too country: but in this case, torn between “good world citizen” and “deferential neighbour”. Exceptionalism creates a bias against listening to global opinion, and makes domestic political, economic and ideological forces paramount.

Nothing fits really well. Better suggestions welcome.

Overall the map can be read as good or bad news. The bad is that the seriously committed countries (dark green) are still in the minority, and that even their policies, if generalised, are not enough to stabilize the climate at a (still risky) 2°C warming. Following the EU isn’t enough, the model should be Norway, which aims to reduce emissions to 70% of 1990 levels by 2020.

The good news is that the committed states – the EU, Japan, and China – are together big enough to have created market conditions for sustained innovation in green technology. Like Matthew, I’m an optimist on technology – though we differ I think on the role of the state in creating markets for it. Technological revolutions don’t follow a steady-growth path, rather a sigmoid one, Solar PV is growing at >30% a year by quantity, and that’s before the breakout. The USA will move quickly from bystander to free rider.

But nature may be speeding up too. It’s a race against the clock.

Note 1 on comments: since I’ve raised the conspiracy theory about climate change, I’ll (sigh) allow comments advancing it: “Climategate”, “IPCC manipulation”, etc. But I’ll still delete off-topic denialist talking points (hockey stick, sea ice, surface temperature, solar variation, etc) and will close comments if the thread gets out of hand.

Note 2 on ostriches: I know, I know, the metaphor is unfair to strutho camelus, which is dumb but not suicidal.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

13 thoughts on “The Axis of Ostriches”

  1. How about “huge and continuing producer of fossil fuels”? As a White House staffer says on one episode of The West Wing, “We’re the Saudi Arabia of coal.” Even many U.S. states that don’t produce coal rely heavily on manufacturing industries that benefit from consuming it very cheaply (see Bayh, Evan). And Canada has come to produce enough oil (from shale), not to mention natural gas, that currency traders classify the looney a petrocurrency.

    This doesn’t explain what precisely distinguishes the U.S. from petroleum and coal producers that are slightly better on climate—but in social science, that’s a tall order. A good social science model typically has several independent variables, and the dependent variable is a probability (as opposed to a definitive prediction) that something will end up in a category.

  2. “rates countries by their commitment to reducing carbon emissions”

    And this commitment is measured how?
    To take the most obvious example — a whole lot of blather from the EU has resulted in pretty much nothing happening. I can’t remember the details, but when I last looked at this, the only countries that had made any sort of useful progress were a handful that fell into some exceptional circumstances — things like Germany because of easy wins cleaning up the East, and the UK because of the coal reductions after the Thatcher-Scargill battles.

    I’m no fan of the US behavior, but when I look at the rest of the world what I see is a whole lot of “let’s promise to reduce by 20% by 2020” followed by “oops, well we won’t make that goal, but, tell you what, what we WILL do is reduce 50% by 2050”.

    I’m sorry, James, but praising maps like this (which focus on “level of commitment” rather than “level of achievement”) is PRECISELY what global warming deniers are talking about when they say that most green thinking is religion in a different guise. A focus on magical thinking, on the importance of “belief” and “commitment”, on doxis and praxis rather than measured outcomes, is the hallmark of religious belief.

    And let’s not forget that many of your “very good” states are on track to double their populations in thirty years or less, and have precisely zero interesting in changing this; even though it will pretty obviously blow a massive hole in their supposed carbon reductions.

  3. We have a uniquely sluggish and dysfunctional political system. Does any other country in the world have the equivalent of the Senate filibuster? (Maybe the Iranian Council of Guardians). Remember, the House, which is equivalent to the Parliament in most other democracies, passed a strong global warming bill.

  4. I am not sure Andy’s explanation holds: The big four of coal (90% of the world’s supply I believe) are the US, India, China and Russia and only the US is rated very poor on the map.

    Is Canada getting a fair rap here? Doesn’t British Columbia have a big carbon tax?

    And let’s not forget that anti-US bias is potent among some British elites, so these ratings may reflect that sentiment as well as the underlying reality.

  5. US–isolated pathetic country lost in narcissistic exceptionalism and religious fundamentalism.
    Canada–bullied by it big idiot brother to the south.
    Saudi Arabia–another basket case, lost in fundamentalist craziness.
    Iran–Terribly politically isolated. Religious basket case.
    Mayanmar–need I say anything? Lunatics.
    Somalia–ravaged by war, poverty. Why bother when you have practically no carbon footprint?

    No, the real outlier is Western Sahara. They may not even know they are a country yet. This illusion must be maintained.

  6. The US gets marked down by not joining the game of pretend by ratifying a treaty which they either had no intention of following, or which, (In the case of many of those ‘green’ countries.) simply makes no demands.

    Heck, look at that map: Germany is rated somewhere between “Good” and “Very good”. You know, the country which, with little potential for solar or increased hydropower, which just decided to shut down all their carbon neutral nukes? What do you think is going to replace them? Wires hooked up to daisies? No, fossil fuels.

    But they’re better than us, because they ratified the treaty. Pulease.

  7. Canada: a sleepwalking population elected and re-elected Harper and his smug coterie because of the myth that the Conservatives were responsible for our relative light economic damage and relatively strong recovery over the past few years. We grow our own bullies now.

  8. Hard to figure how Brazil, where government support for ethanol production has led to deforestation on an epic scale, earns a Very Good rating.

  9. The map is a joke. It rates countries based on superficial commitments rather than actual steps. The reality is that no country has taken significant deliberate steps toward decarbonization — especially not developed nations — and that the EU’s actual, demonstrated commitment to reducing GHG emissions is no greater than that of the US, at least not as measured by actual concrete steps. Australia might prove to be an exception if the carbon tax proposal goes through and is maintained — but then look at how Australia is rated. Politicians might take solace in a rating system that gives credit for platitudes over meaningful policies, but serious academics should not.

    JHA

  10. “It’s all hot air” won’t wash. The EU is on target to meeting its (not very demanding) Kyoto-1 commitments. More important, it has the policy infrastructure and monitoring tools inplace for the more ambitious second-wave targets.

    Lots of good comparative charts here.

    Brazilian sugarcane is overwhelmingly grown in the Planalto, a thousand miles south of the Amazon rainforest.

    The USA is a comparatively high population growth country.

    The German decision to phase out nuclear power is a mistake, sure. But that doesn’t put in question their commitment to reducing emissions. Have you noticed where solar PV is being (suboptimally) installed?

  11. PS: public policy stances are surely not a sufficient condition for deep cuts in carbon emissions. But they are a necessary one.
    Unless you believe in
    (a) exogenous technological miracles or
    (b) (for a single country) pure free-riding on innovations developed in markets created by others or
    (c) a grassroots cultural revolution.
    Option b) is perfectly reasonable for Bhutan.

  12. USA, Canada and Australia are explained by their overwhelming pre-existing investment in sprawl land development patterns that do not lend themselves to retrofits, causing travel patterns that contribute (ballpark) 50% of national carbon emissions.

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