U.S.-China Climate Deal: the Short and the Cynical

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An agreement between the U.S. and China to curb greenhouse-gas emissions won’t slow global warming enough to prevent extreme weather that damages crops, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said. (Bloomberg)

I’ve been avoiding the topic of the climate deal for a variety of reasons, but mostly because of my innate cynicism. But isn’t any deal a good thing? Yes, I suppose. And isn’t the scope of this particular deal better than a lot of folks expected? Again, yes.

And yet . . .

Let me make this simple. I won’t bother with any of the details in the deal. Not that there isn’t a lot to say there, and certainly many experts could tell you why certain promises are more or less likely to be kept by one or both of the parties.

That’s an important discussion, but for my purposes wholly unnecessary.

Why? Simple fact: the energy industries in both the U.S. and China wield way too much political power for significant change to occur anytime soon.

One could certainly argue that Beijing has the power to live up to the deal, simply in terms of central government authority. But if you think that is easy for Beijing, then you not only have a weak grasp of how Chinese politics works, but also do not understand that the energy companies here cannot be easily pushed around. Also keep in mind that although economic growth isn’t the metric that it once was in China, you can bet that the slowing economy is making certain environmental policies difficult to support.

And need we bother to talk about the big oil companies in the U.S.? I’m not sure if the energy sector is the most effective American political lobby these days (other candidates: gun manufacturers, the defense industry, Wall Street), but it’s definitely in the top five.

Both political parties in the U.S. are beholden to energy interests, but I would be remiss not to point out that the incoming Republican head of the Senate subcommittee charged with, among other things, environmental policy, believes that climate change is a hoax. I am not making this up.

Anyone who expects substantive climate change policy to come out of D.C. anytime soon, the U.S.-China deal notwithstanding, is living in a dream world.

So where’s the impetus for change? In China, there’s a bit of a push on to do something about air pollution, mostly because dirty air looks bad on television. (Thought experiment: if all air pollution was invisible to the human eye, would we still be talking about policy solutions?) Beijing’s air will be cleaned up eventually, but no one knows when, or how, or what will happen to cities to which foreign dignitaries do not visit.

No change is likely in the U.S. Indeed, any one of the current favorites for president in 2016 would no doubt be worse for the environment than Obama. And if a libertarian is elected? Well, their solution is to do nothing, believing that if the environment gets bad enough, private individuals will pool their resources to pay energy companies to stop polluting. Sure, that’ll work.

Any optimists out there?