Kick the Can on Energy Policy: Bravo

By Kennedy Maize

WASHINGTON, Nov. 16, 2009 — Call it “kick the can.” The Obama administration, according to the New York Times, has persuaded (does than mean big-footed?) the rest of the world attending the upcoming Copenhagen climate change confab to adopt a policy duck. It walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and defecates like a duck.

Acknowledging that there is not enough political support for global warming legislation in the U.S. Congress (it’s clear that the Obama administration’s energy legislation would not command even 50 votes in the Senate), the White House is looking for a way to save international face in Copenhagen in December. Their approach is a familiar “declare victory and bring the troops home” strategy.

The Times’s Helene Cooper, an excellent reporter, wrote on Nov. 14, “ President Obama and other world leaders have decided to put off the difficult task of reaching a climate change agreement at a global climate conference scheduled for next month, agreeing instead to make it the mission of the Copenhagen conference to reach a less specific ‘politically binding’ agreement that would punt the most difficult issues into the future.”

Just what does “politically binding” mean? The answer must be: Not binding in any way. It’s a classic duck. As several commentators have noted, the administration cannot commit to international rules that don’t face congressional scrutiny. They can’t bind anybody to anything.

What the administration and other world leaders have agreed to, in advance of the Copenhagen meeting, is a political veil that essentially covers nothing. It is policy dressed up as striptease. It reveals a lot, but ultimately accomplishes nothing. “Politically binding?” Give me a break. The construct is inherently oxymoronic.

Clearly many world leaders believe that there is political advantage in a worldwide attempt to attack carbon dioxide emissions – a follow-on to the failed 1997 Kyoto Treaty (to which the U.S. Senate, after Vice President Al Gore brokered the deal, correctly flipped a 95-0 political bird to the treaty). There is no doubt, as I read it, that world leaders believe that international approaches to global warming won’t work. In other words, there is worldwide cynicism directed at anything that might come out of Copenhagen. But they can’t admit that.

Don’t read me wrong here. I think any international agreement on global warming is a charade. So if Copenhagen fails, that’s good news as I read it. Global agreements to deal with an environmental issue that is undefined and unmeasurable, but incredibly costly to taxpayers without a clear benefit, aren’t a good idea. Let’s attack real problems. How about malaria control, potable water, and access to electricity?

I chuckle at the inability of the U.S. administration to implement its flawed approach to the subject. If the climate problem is real – which I doubt – the solution is clearly not a worldwide regulatory regime that, by every analysis, won’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly. Cap-and-trade on a worldwide basis enriches traders who can take advantage of securitized pollution positions, but won’t ultimately reduce carbon dioxide emissions significantly.

So it’s fine by me that the administration has adopted a strategy that essentially says, “Let’s kick the can down the road and see what happens next.” That’s a practical policy. It works. It make sense to me.