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January 26, 2007

Richard Benedick on Climate Policy

Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | International

The always excellent Issues in Science and Technology (and if you don’t subscribe you should) has a great essay in its winter issue by Richard Benedick, former deputy assistant secretary of state and chief U.S. negotiator of the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Protect the Ozone Layer. The essay is titled "Avoiding Gridlock on Climate Change" and appears on pp. 37-40. Mr. Benedick knows something about international environmental agreements. His essay is not yet online, but I have excerpted some key passages below.

He begins by leveling some string criticism at the annual gatherings under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

These UN mega-conferences have by now developed a predictable pattern. Considerable time is occupied by tedious problems of coordinating positions and tactics, both inside the huge national delegations and within blocs of countries such as the European Union and other regional or "like-minded" coalitions. There are the usual dire warnings— fully justifiable—of impending global catastrophe. There are trivial protocol debates and ritualistic ministerial speeches exhorting complicated and unrealistic actions. There are cultural diversions such as boat rides on the Rhine or dance performances in Marrakech. As the end nears, all-night negotiating sessions contribute to a sense of destiny. But despite the customary self-congratulatory finale, the results at Nairobi, as at preceding meetings, were embarrassingly meager. . .

Part of the problem, as he sees it, is a short-term obsession with targets and timetables.

The climate meetings, obsessively focused on short-term targets and timetables applying only to industrialized nations, have become trapped in a process that is unmanageable, inefficient, and impervious to serious negotiation of complex issues that have profound environmental, economic, and social implications extending over many decades into the future. . .

He suggests that that the UNFCCC’s Kyoto Protocol actually serves the interests of industry, oil-producing countries, and the Bush Administration. These views qualify him for instant "non-skeptic heretic" status (sorry, couldn’t resist;-).

The Kyoto Protocol, lamely defended by its proponents as “the only game in town,” now best serves the interests of politicians whose rhetoric is stronger than their actions and of those commercial interests and governments that want no meaningful actions at all—notably, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Near East oil producers, and the U.S. administration, which is not unhappy with the treaty’s lack of progress. . .

In a crucial passage, Mr. Benedick goes a long way to dispelling some of the myths of the ozone experience. Reading the following closely.

It is worth recalling that the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, later characterized by the heads of the UN Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization as “one of the great international achievements of the century,” was negotiated by only about 30 nations in nine months, with delegations seldom exceeding six persons and with minimal attention from outside observers and media. I doubt whether the ozone treaty could have been achieved under the currently fashionable global format.

We might draw some useful lessons from the ozone history. In the late 1970s, the ozone science was actually much more disputed than the climate science of today, and the major countries that produced and consumed chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were hopelessly deadlocked over the necessity for any controls at all. In this situation, the first international action on protecting the ozone layer was neither global, nor even a treaty. Rather, it was an informal accord among a loose coalition of like-minded nations, including Australia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, and the United States, to individually and separately ban the use of CFCs in aerosol spray cans.

This measure alone resulted in a temporary 30% drop in global CFC consumption (temporary because these “wonder chemicals” were continuing to find new uses in numerous industries.) But the action was nevertheless significant for the future. The resultant technological innovations demonstrated to the skeptics (in this case the European Community, Japan, and the Soviet Union) that controls were feasible, at least for this class of products. It also gave the United States and other proponents of a strong treaty the moral and practical high ground in later negotiations to restrict all uses of CFCs. Yet, if anyone had actually proposed a 30% reduction target, it would surely have been rejected as impossible.

An important lesson here is that a specific policy measure, not an abstract target, could stimulate unanticipated technological innovation. The policy measure drove the agreement on targets in the later ozone protocol, not vice versa. In contrast, the half-hearted performance of most governments with respect to climate policy measures has not matched their political rhetoric about the urgency of targets.

Another important lesson from the Montreal history was that not all countries need to agree in order to take a substantial step forward. It is also relevant to note that, in contrast to Kyoto, developing nations did accept limitations on their CFC consumption, but only when they were assured of equitable access to new technologies. Technology development is the missing guest at the Kyoto feast. . . [Emphasis added. –RP]

He makes a case that climate change needs to be grappled with piecemeal, eschewing the fantasy of a single global agreement that will drive policy and technology. As highlighted above, experience suggest that the direction of causality is precisely backward -- it is the presence of smaller scale agreements and technological innovation that makes global agreements possible. This is the lesson drawn by Pielke and Betsill (1997) (PDF).

The climate problem could be disaggregated into smaller, more manageable components with fewer participants—in effect, a search for partial solutions rather than a comprehensive global model. An architecture of parallel regimes, involving varying combinations of national and local governments, industry, and civil society on different themes, could reinvigorate the climate negotiations by acknowledging the diverse interests and by expanding the scope of possible solutions. To be sure, even here success would require a degree of genuine political will among at least a significant number of key governments. Nonetheless, by focusing on specific sectors and policy measures in smaller, less formal settings with varying combinations of actors and by not operating under UN consensus rules, the possibilities for achieving forward motion would be increased. The process and results could be termed protocols or forums or agreements, but their essential character would more closely resemble a pragmatic working group than a formal diplomatic negotiation. . .

He discusses some details on issue areas where he thinks that subglobal cooperation and coordination might take place. I don’t reproduce any of the details here, other than to list these issue areas:

Energy research and development Transportation Power generation Agriculture, coal, and adaptation technologies Other technology R&D agreements Government procurement policies Regional cooperation

He concludes by observing that we need to be expanding our options, not foreclosing them, a view often advocated here.

There are no easy answers; we could begin by admitting that over a decade of global negotiations has not brought notable progress. We should be open to new ideas.

Ever the diplomat, in the end he offers some conciliatory words to the UNFCCC suggesting that his vision might operate in parallel. My reading of his argument is that the reality is that progress on climate change won’t be made until we break free from the current approach.

Posted on January 26, 2007 08:45 AM


Great point about how direct action by a group of concerned countries spurred a larger consensus on how to act. I can't see how such an action would work though, given the current focus on carbon trading as the fashionable solution to carbon emissions. Such a market scheme inherently favors smaller countries and the slow moving economies of old europe over the growing economies of countries like the US, China, and India. If most of the cost of the preferred solution falls on the shoulders of the countries whose inclusion in the solution is most critical to its success, I can't see how we expect to successfully implement that solution. That is especially true when the costs of inaction may be quite limited in those countries when compared to the rest of the world.

Relying on moral outrage and assaults on our way of life to try to get the US to change its course is and always will be a flawed strategy for the rest of the globe. We are used to being called "the great satan" by now and a large section of the American population has by now accepted that nothing we will ever do will prevent Old Europe from seeing us as uncivilized savages who are the root cause of most of the bad things that happen in the world. There is a certain segment of the US population that spends a great deal of time wringing their hands over how the rest of the world views us, but the rest of us have made our peace with the disdain the rest of the world publicly expresses for us while knowing that when the stuff hits the fan, we will always be there when the world needs us. In order to reach a global agreement on how to reduce emissions, the rest of the world has to recognize that calling us names and blaming us for everything isn't the way to ask for cooperation when the price of that cooperation will be much higher for us than it will be for them.

Posted by: Bill F at January 26, 2007 09:46 AM

The current debate is corrupted (both consciously and subconsciously) by those who have seen the money made in the original Oil for Food scam and the potential with a global "solution" here. It is worth their while to continue to confuse the AGW issue by exagerating the CO2 component (which is unproven outside the lab anyway - not meaning it doesn't exist, but that the feedbacks appear stronger than the forcings since there is no evidence thereof in the record) and this convolution, plus the actual lack of knowledge of the CO2 effect including feedbacks, puts the whole thing at a logjam.

The science may be settled, qualitatively, but that's a long way from understanding the reality. Many don't get that, either.

Posted by: Steve Hemphill [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 26, 2007 10:20 AM

"Rather, it was an informal accord among a loose coalition of like-minded nations, including Australia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, and the United States, to individually and separately ban the use of CFCs in aerosol spray cans."

The replacement of CFC with the hydrofluorocarbon, unstable, expensive, corrosive, toxic, inorganic,carcinogenic, wetland-damaging greenhouse gas HFC-134a was very welcome to DuPont who was about to lose the CFC patent rights and its 40 Billion business in the US alone. Most of the people in the refrigeration industry know that the CFC ban was a scam

Posted by: Vasco at January 26, 2007 03:42 PM

I think most people agree that it is inappropriate to look at the success/failure of the Montreal protocol on ODS as a model for regulating GHGs. To anyone who is remotely familiar with both issues, it is immediately clear that the only thing the two problems share in common is that their effects are transnational and potentially long lasting. The GHG/climate change problem is orders of magnitude more difficult to solve because:

1. the gross assymetry that exists between winners/losers both in time and space;

2. there is no one single politically/economically acceptable solution on the horizon (unlike Dupont with HCFCs).

International agreements are hard. Especially when there is no obvious 'silver bullet'. Should we be suprised that progress has been slow? No. Is there a CREDIBLE alternative? No. IMO technolgy prizes, increased R&D budgets, regional coalitions of the willing and variants are tokenism and won't result in real progress. Having said that I am fully willing to entertain arguments which suggest otherwise -- a little hope is never a bad thing after all...

btw for a good read on the ozone issue I would suggest Karen Litfin's work:

Posted by: Marlowe Johnson [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 26, 2007 08:43 PM

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