Climate diplomacy as partisan fun

The Obama administration should go for a strong and partisan climate treaty in Paris in 2015.

President Obama’s political situation after the mid-term election defeat of the Democrats is the same as it was before. Kevin Drum, as so often, gets this one right. (Get well, Kevin, even slowly). Not Amurath an Amurath succeeds, but gridlock, gridlock. Obama’s positive agenda lies entirely within his executive prerogative. He can take action in a very few fields: immigration, the EPA coal regulation, housing finance and Keystone come to mind. He will surely act on the first two, and on past experience leave housing a mess. Keystone? Your guess is as good as mine. Going by the public option in healthcare, which enjoyed a similarly lukewarm commitment, approval is probably on the table as a bargaining chip over the budget.

The other thing he can do is have fun and set traps for the GOP and stake out positions to prepare the 2016 election. HRC can likely see off any of the available GOP candidates, so the aim is to retake the Senate and reduce the GOP hold on the House. Presidential and Senate victories can be won simply by energising the Democratic base to show up at the polls with a stock agenda. The geographical concentration of Democrats indicates that regaining the House cannot be done by this alone, and requires reversing the loss of older white working-class voters with a broad message of opportunity and progress. One wedge issue here is climate: polls show that GOP politicians are unrepresentative of their own divided base on climate change and the energy transition, apart from unpopular carbon taxes.

One prerogative of the executive is the negotiation of treaties.

English and Spanish diplomats negotiate peace in 1604
English and Spanish diplomats negotiate peace in 1604 Source Wikicommons

The big one coming up is a climate treaty, hopefully to be approved at the Paris UN climate session in December 2015. Technically this would be, like the Kyoto agreement, a protocol to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This is an aspirational and procedural agreement without binding targets, but the US is a party along with everybody else.

If the US negotiating position in Paris is defined by “something that can pass the Senate”, it is empty: no climate treaty can do so. Other delegations will understand this perfectly well. The US will find itself ignored as a non-player, but US abdication will make the chance of agreement among everybody else remote.

A better tactic, emulating that of the Clinton Administration on the International Criminal Court, would be to negotiate a strong treaty in line with objective US interests as the Administration sees them. It would be designed to fail in the Senate, with votes on record, and to become an issue in the 2016 election. Paris Protocol = American cleantech jobs and energy independence! Strangled by the Kochtopus! Republicans are for hurricanes and droughts!

Suppose Paris fails to agree on a universal protocol, because of opposition from India or Saudi Arabia or Australia or Canada or * Backwoodistan. As I’ve argued here before, the startling elimination of significant net costs for an aggressive mitigation strategy has removed the free rider problem. A partial agreement is better than none. The fallback US aim could therefore be a side-agreement of a coalition of the willing, of which the core would have to include the US, China and the EU. Many others would join this in the course of time. A model for such a process is provided by the Schengen agreement of 1985 : to get round strong British opposition to a common area of free movement within the EU, five likeminded countries adopted a go-ahead treaty between themselves. Originally this was outside the EU structures, but has since been brought within them – still without the UK. If an American reader plans to travel to Europe, you will need to know about Schengen.

* The power of holdouts to block a multilateral agreement is limited. The UN operates by strict consensus in the Security Council, with vetoes; but by majority in the General Assembly. Common sense limits the power of a single small objector to hold things up. Patricia Espinosa, then Foreign Minister of Mexico, as chair of the Cancun conference in 2010 simply overrode the objections of Bolivia to the closing statement. Since the (n-1) in agreement have a sovereign Westphalian right to make any deal they like among themselves, the power of a holdout depends on realpolitik not formal status. A climate agreement without the US, China and the EU doesn’t mean much; without Bolivia, it’s entirely doable. Australia, Canada and probably Saudi Arabia could be ignored. I’m not sure about India, but it really wants that seat on the Security Council.

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

9 thoughts on “Climate diplomacy as partisan fun”

  1. As a dual national and one time resident of Calgary, I feel ashamed at their slavish devotion to whatever the mostly foreign owned oil patch throws out there. Canada could be a world leader in clean technology but as long as Stephen Harper’s in charge the oil taps stay full on open. Also once again I feel I must apologize for Ted Cruz.

  2. Once again I think you badly misread the politics of climate change. Your approach simply wouldn't turn into a meaningfully positive factor in the 2016 campaign, and would quite possibly be a negative. Ignore how climate policy polls, because the number of climate deniers for whom it would make a difference in their electoral behavior is larger than the other side.

    The Republican coalition, for instance, isn't split in any meaningful way. Sure, you can find some Republicans that, in the abstract, think we should do something about the climate but I could probably list on my fingers the number of them who will fight for it at all. And in terms of collecting electoral votes, they'll be joined by the undecideds who get scared of any idea of governmental regulations or restrictions on energy usage.

    1. I didn't mention the much large number of Republicans who support renewable energy, in many cases independently of climate change, on grounds of local air pollution, sturdy-homesteader independence, job creation, or simply self-interest. It is quite certain than in two years time, the costs of climate disruption will be more evident and the costs of renewables and evs lower than now. The tide is bound to turn sometime: why not in 2016? Of course carbon mitigation has to be part of a larger progressive vision and agenda, as I wrote.

      What is your your alternative strategy for the Democrats? Pussyfooting and garbled messages worked so well this time.

      1. Sure, they need a more coherent message but I don't think climate change is helpful as more than a secondary element. The costs of global warming are going to continue to become more apparent to you and me. That tells us absolutely nothing about whether they are going to become more apparent to the American electorate at large, or when. The problem is that it's too easy to obfuscate the connection between any specific event and overall climate change. The science speaks in terms of uncertainty, and uncertainty is almost impossible to convey to most people; I was a statistics major in college and, trust me, trying to get across the idea of probability and likelihoods is almost a non-starter in most conversations.

        On climate change, the deniers have a simple (though boneheadedly wrong) story to tell that exploits every bit of uncertainty present in the science. Last winter was really cold in the U.S. and it's looking like this one will be, too. Sure, you and I know that temperature is a global phenomenon and that there is strong evidence that this weather is not only compatible with but perhaps even driven by global warming, but that's not going to get you very far. Americans are about to be cold again and you won't get them to understand the problem in sufficient mass to get them to vote on it.

        The coherent message Democrats are going to have to figure out how to make is strictly economic and focused on inequality and wage growth. This is also going to be a complicated process, not made easier by the fact that this message isn't going to be popular among the people that donate money to Democrats; that, I think, is an underappreciated problem with how expensive American elections are for the candidates. It's not a problem for Republicans, because their devoted voters and their donors want to hear the same message. That's not true for Democrats and they need to find a way to thread the needle on crafting a populist economic message that can pick up the voters that they must have without alienating the elite donors, whose support they also must have.

        1. Obama has to take a position in Paris. The options are as I put them; sit it out passively, or work toward a good treaty the Senate will reject, and then try to exploit the rejection electorally. Which do you suggest? In theory the US could actively try to sabotage the conference as if George Bolton were in charge and ensure nothing significant is agreed, but this would be stupid and wrong at every level.

          My hunch – call it wishful thinking if you like – is that climate change has to be HRC's signature policy by default. Obama has fixed healthcare for a decade at least, apart from minor tweaks, and possibly emergency repairs if the Supremes are corrupt and royalist enough to grant King. A populist assault on malefactors of great wealth is not on her cards. The GWOT has settled down to a long-term nuisance. ISIS is repellent, but poses little threat to major US interests. You could say the same for Putin. Peace in Palestine is unattainable. What else if there but climate change? She will be judged on it by history anyway. The next big hurricane will concentrate minds in Miami etc a lot. List of upcoming names here. You and I should be glad our own names don't feature, unless your “J” is Joaquin.

          1. Or she could follow in the grand Clinton tradition and not have a single major issue she campaigns on. I don't know that that will work and it's one of the reasons why I'm nervous about her as a candidate. But your post rests upon a whole raft of assumptions that I don't think hold up. Mostly, I just don't think you understand American politics at all.

          2. The HRC paragraph is about her aims in government, not her campaign. Obama did not make health care the centre of his 2008 campaign, but it became that of his presidency – possibly by chance and Pelosi rather than design.

            There are plenty of things in American politics I don't understand: the role of guns, religion and money, poor whites voting against their interests, poor blacks not showing up at the polls midterm. These are sociological issues where familiarity is necessary. Obama and HRC are cerebral, calculating politicians, and my armchair analysis of their options on say climate change starts from little disadvantage compared to yours.

          3. And yet, I'm dead certain that you get it absolutely wrong. I don't think you have any idea how it actually plays out among the American electorate. Your continued insistence that the falling economic costs of dealing with climate change will produce an overall electorate that will vote for a candidate because they are in favor of taking strong action indicates that you badly misunderstand the nature of the opposition to dealing with global warming.

            That opposition is primarily sociological and cultural. A careful analysis of actual costs and benefits is utterly irrelevant to how the issue plays in the real world of American politics. Republicans and many independents in this country don't really oppose a carbon tax or cap-and-trade or even subsidies for solar power because they think it's too expensive. They oppose it because, deep down, they don't want to believe that their actions contribute to global warming. They are also reflexively opposed to any sort of taxation or government regulation that would produce a short term increase in their energy bills.

            They are already convinced that, by definition, it is impossible for those things to produce positive results. If you show up with charts, tables, and white papers pointing out that they are wrong, they will dismiss you as obviously biased. This is a much broader problem than just global warming. A large chunk of the American electorate simply discards as false empirical evidence that would challenge these assumptions. This isn't limited to just right wingers, either. Low information voters in this country have overwhelmingly concluded that experts can't be trusted.

            I don't know how to change this, but until it does, no amount of pointing out that there are positive benefits will make any difference. And that absolutely will not happen between now and 2016. Going all out on the climate change front will significantly hurt any presidential candidate that does it. No matter how badly Clinton needs a signature issue, this will not be it, now matter how badly you wish it to be true.

  3. I think you are a little bit talking past each other. James isn't saying HRC would campaign on CC, just that fighting it should and/or will be a major focus for her if she wins. Which I agree with.

    I also agree though that there are significant hurdles created by American political culture, namely our utterly cr*p public discourse. But I don't think all hope is lost — just that *somebody* is going to have to do a boatload of work to cut through it. There are conservative ideas and traditions that can be very helpful — there are churches, hunters' groups, and all manner of semi-right-wingy-in-some-cases groups to whom appeal can be made, f.e. on the basis of the precautionary principle, which imo would be a huge help in the CC debate. (I am myself a walking example of this type of voter — I "believe" in CC based on my own life history and experiences, and on a perceived scientific consensus. But for heaven's sake, don't ask me to explain it!!! No clue, really. Ain't no statistician.)

    The GOP leadership has its head firmly planted up its backside, but I'm not convinced that that's true of all the little people like me on the other side. It is just a question of being respectful and being thoughtful about the approach, and btw, doing a lot of it in person.

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