Oren Cass on Climate Negotiations

Many supporters of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, from environmental activists to President Obama, hail it as a decisive victory in the war on climate change. The conference, which was held in Paris last November and December, resulted in what news sources call a “historical breakthrough” agreement between nearly 200 countries to reduce the amount of global carbon emissions.

Although the amount of international support for this agreement is impressive, critics suggest that the Paris Alliance lacks the framework necessary to make such reductions in carbon emissions possible.

One such critic is Oren Cass, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who spoke at Hamilton College last Monday as part of the Environmental Studies Program’s speaker series. Cass focuses on energy, the environment, and antipoverty policy. He was domestic policy director of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2011–12 and has since outlined conservative policy approaches to poverty, climate change, environmental regulation, and international trade.

Cass argued the ineffectiveness of the Paris Alliance before a crowded room of Hamilton students and faculty in a lecture titled “Leading Nowhere: The Futility and Farce of Global Climate Negotiations.” He discussed a number of key structural flaws that he and other policy makers believe will result in the failure of the UN’s goal to reduce carbon emissions and keep the rise in global warming below 2 degrees Celsius until 2030, when the deal runs out.

Among the structural failures that Cass identifies are the abandonment of collective action, the encouragement of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), the rejection of the premise of enforceable agreements, and the neglect of baselines and standards.

While Cass acknowledges that the conference managed to produce a major agreement between countries, he argued, “[it] also marked the collapse of a 25-year effort to catalyze collective global action on climate change. By design, the negotiating process provided no mechanism for the world to act collectively on the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions.”

Instead of negotiating, representatives at the conference adopted a “pledge and review” process in which each country proposed their own INDCs for emissions cuts. Those proposals were made at each country’s discretion and required no particular format, metrics, or baseline for comparison.

In addition, the contributions were neither legally binding nor were there consequences established for noncompliance. This created a situation in which countries with weak pledges receive applause for their barely-existent commitment to climate change mitigation.

President Obama proudly declared that “180 countries . . . show[ed] up in Paris with serious climate targets in hand,” despite the fact that many countries were not actually pledging to change their behaviors.

China, for instance, pledged that its carbon dioxide emissions would peak “around 2030,” which is exactly when a prior study by the U.S. suggested they would peak anyway. India offered only a 33 to 35 percent improvement in carbon intensity, a decline slower than its present trajectory, but included nothing pertaining to its future emissions.

As a result of the lack of serious commitments from both developed and developing countries, a recent MIT study shows that even when combined, all of the carbon reduction pledges put forth during the Paris Climate Change Conference are not likely to have a significant impact on the projected global temperatures between now and 2030.

Cass also explained that in addition to the structural failures of the Paris Alliance, he doubts that the conference was even meant to produce a serious document. In an article in National Review last December, he argued that the climate conference “aimed to burnish the legacies of participants and justify the enormous sums of political capital expended on the process. The goal of actually mitigating climate change seemed far from [the negotiators’] minds. The political accomplishment of a signed agreement, never mind its contents, had become the end in itself.”

At the end of his lecture, Cass proposed several alternative approaches to the climate change problem, including collective action, compensation (climate finance) and coercion. The most feasible alternative to the Paris Alliance, he argues, relies on technological innovation, or creating cleaner, cheaper energy sources through investing in privately owned corporations.

Unless policy makers are able to formulate a comprehensive plan, preparations for the April 21, 2016 Paris Accords signing will continue. The question remains, will the United States sign?