Lawrence Summers addresses the proper course for combating climate change...

Lawrence Summers: We need to bring climate idealism down to earth

In an op-ed piece in the Financial Times, former-Clinton Administration cabinet member and Harvard University President Lawrence Summers attempts to bring a realist perspective to the debate over the most appropriate policy response to climate change. Summers accurately asserts that the crucial question facing political leaders is what should be done so as to leave our descendants with the highest possible quality of life. Summers cites the failed League of Nations as a powerful lesson in the counterproductive forces of utopian vision and ambition unmoored from political, economic and social reality, which is a lesson lost on many of the more vocal proponents of the Kyoto protocol.

Summers attempts to raise the point that there is a very real danger that the Kyoto model of a global cap and trade program for achieving rapid emissions reductions, which is the favored approach among EU states, could become inefficient or counterproductive if substituted for more realistic policy approaches. He proposes three potential pitfalls of the Kyoto model, and though he doesn't pose any suggestions for improving upon the current framework, he promises to do so in his next column coming early this month.

"First," Summers says, "the Kyoto approach depends on the questionable premise that nations will, in fact, be bound by binding targets or penalties for not meeting them." Using another historical metaphor to emphasize his point, Summers compares this flimsy framework for holding states accountable for their commitments under Kyoto to the Maastricht Treaty, the founding agreement of the European Union, which set firm benchmarks for fiscal accountability and held nations unable to meet these commitments responsible for paying penalties to their fellow Union states. Initially it seemed like a promising provision among countries that had already achieved a high degree of cohesion between their national economies after centuries of economic ties, however it quickly broke down when it became apparent that these targets would not be binding for large countries, and the eventually the goals were abandoned and no payments were ever made by countries who violated the caps placed on member state budget deficits. Essentially, states signed on in good faith, but when push came to shove, nobody lived up to their commitments.

A second reality of national policy in the age of carbon markets is the potential for politicians to engage in pork-barrel corporate subsidy politics on a massive scale. Summers makes clear that, "while in principle emission permits could be auctioned, in practice they are always allocated administratively." Businesses that have the luxury of passing on carbon costs to their consumers are ecstatic about the proposed schemes that compensate for these costs by allocating permits based upon each firms current emissions levels. Financial Times investigations have found evidence that some firms have artificially increased their greenhouse gas emissions recently to claim carbon credits for their abatement. Obviously this is not a strategy for affectively addressing the issue.

"Third, the most serious problem with the Kyoto framework is that it is unlikely to generate substantial changes in developing country policies." It has recently been announced that by the end of 2007 China will overtake the US as the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases, yet they are omitted intentionally from any obligation under the Kyoto protocol as a 'developing' nation. As Summers astutely points out, it is not reasonable to expect developing countries to accept binding targets on their energy use or greenhouse gas emissions that fall way short on a per-capita basis of emissions levels in the industrial world. However, given the unquestionable impact these country's industrial policies have on climate change, it would be ridiculous to consider any policy aimed at stemming climate change that omits the developing world from participating as a sufficient plan of action.

It is a frustrating experience to try and argue the merits of the Kyoto model in college political science courses, as I can personally attest, with most of the debate consumed by anti-Bush blather and little attention actually paid to the merits of the Kyoto protocol in the first place. It has become apparent to most young students of politics that we have a significant stake in adopting constructive and unified policies that will curb the high levels of CO2 emissions coming from our factories. However, debate on the most prudent course of action has been marred by partisan political vitriol aimed at undermining the Bush Administration. Until a consensus can be reached among members of different political factions in the US and elsewhere, it is unlikely that any progress will be made toward stemming the long-term impact our industrial system has on our environment and the future of the human race. The realistic approach of Mr. Summers and his colleagues in the study of economics, such as the Financial Times' Martin Wolf, are a good start on the road toward reaching a political framework for saving our planet that is realistic.

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