- - Tuesday, October 28, 2014


When President Obama addressed the United Nations last month, he admitted that “[t]he science tells us we can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every other nation, by every major power.” It is true that unilateral climate change policies are futile, but that only makes this administration’s current action on climate change even more difficult to justify.

The plan consists of a combination of go-it-alone efforts and empty promises to do even more. In June, the EPA proposed a burdensome rule to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants in the United States — without any corresponding action from the world’s other major greenhouse gas emitters.

And at the U.N. climate summit, the president committed to “do[ing] our part” in a climate-change agreement that is both “ambitious” and “flexible” — meaning it will not apply to all nations equally. Earlier, the administration explained that its proposal is not a treaty, but rather a “politically binding” deal — whatever that means. The deal would be based not on legally enforceable penalties, but on “nam[ing] and sham[ing]” countries that fail to meet the targeted emissions reductions.

The United States is not alone in setting a climate agenda based on non-binding goals. Last week, the European Union adopted an “indicative” — but unenforceable — target to increase energy efficiency 27 percent by 2030 from a 1990 baseline. The EU also announced a 27 percent target increase for renewable energy, which is said to be binding at the EU level but not the national level. Since the EU is a union of nations, it is hard to see how such a target is anything more than words.

The trouble with international policies that fall short of enforceable treaties is that every nation has a great incentive to be a free rider on other nations’ emissions reductions, and very little incentive to pull its own weight. As President Obama acknowledged to the U.N., “Too often, we have failed to enforce international norms when it’s inconvenient to do so.”

In the context of climate change, however, the president’s proposed solution seems to consist of piling on new, unenforceable international norms.

The president has a good reason, though, for choosing not to pursue a climate treaty: The Senate, which would have to ratify such a treaty, has already rejected that course of action, citing the very same collective action problem as the president. In advance of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the Senate unanimously resolved that the United States “should not be a signatory to any … agreement regarding the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change” unless developing countries were to share with industrialized countries in the burden of cutting emissions.

Exempting some countries from the responsibilities of implementing a climate treaty, the Democratic-controlled Senate noted, “is inconsistent with the need for global action on climate change and is environmentally flawed.” Letting some nations off the hook “could result in serious harm to the United States economy, including significant job loss, trade disadvantages, increased energy and consumer costs, or any combination thereof.”

After the elections next week, the Senate will be no more likely to ratify a climate change agreement that commits the U.S. to costly burdens that are not shared by our international competitors. Mr. Obama knows this, and his continuing effort to “name and shame” the country and its industry with a “politically-binding” accord represents a transparent and ultimately futile attempt to evade the Senate’s constitutional “advice and consent” prerogative.

If policymakers are serious about cutting carbon emissions, they should give up heavy-handed mandates and empty promises in favor of policies that promote competition in the energy sector. Alternative fuels like natural gas have already reduced carbon emissions in electricity generation and could do the same in transportation.

Consider also nuclear power, which is much less carbon-intensive than coal and fossil fuels. Yet Germany is shuttering profitable nuclear power plants and ramping up coal production. And America’s investment in nuclear plants has stagnated since the 1970s. Likewise, oil continues to enjoy a virtual monopoly in the transportation sector despite the availability of low-cost, low-carbon alternatives like natural gas, hydrogen and ethanol.

If President Obama really wants America to lead a transition to low-carbon energy, he should focus on competition, not shame.

C. Boyden Gray has served as White House counsel, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, special envoy for Eurasian energy and special envoy for European Union affairs. “Arbitrary and Capricious” runs monthly.

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