Advocates for an international pact to regulate greenhouse gas emissions congregated this week at the U.N. headquarters in New York.
The venue was altogether fitting.
The United Nations acts in a fantasy theater divorced from earthbound politics. Everything it does other than humanitarian endeavors — like giving a podium to endless blather by national leaders — are pointless. The current initiative to negotiate global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to diminish global warming is emblematic.
Any tangible benefits from a nation’s slashing emissions will not appear until years after the incumbent leaders have departed office or died. None of the yet-to-be-born beneficiaries of emission reductions cast votes in current elections. The costs of the curtailments, however, would be born immediately by the living through price increases, plant closures, unemployment or otherwise. Why would a typically narcissistic politician impose burdens on his voting constituents to benefit future generations irrelevant to his political fortunes? The staggering $18 trillion U.S. debt is indicative of the irresistible temptation of politicians to spend now to curry the favor of the living at the expense of disenfranchised posterity.
The same political dynamic making the future subservient to the immediate makes the idea of a global greenhouse gas emissions pact fanciful. Thus, the United Nations has been attempting to broker such an agreement for more than two decades without anything material to show for its efforts. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide emissions have climbed 50 percent.
Moreover, a nation choosing to diminish greenhouse gas emissions does not benefit proportionately according to its sacrifices. Greenhouse gases mix globally in the atmosphere. Damages attributable to global warming are shared equally around the globe irrespective of where greenhouse gases are emitted. Thus, any country acting unilaterally would bear all the costs of cutting emissions but only a tiny fraction of the benefits. That truth is politically prohibitive for any nation contemplating emissions reductions sufficiently sizable to impact global warming.
The U.N. goal is to prevent global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial yardsticks. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, meeting this objective would require a vertical plunge of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions of 40 percent to 70 percent by mid-century — far beyond what would be feasible for the United States or any small group of nations.
But these realities do not leave us helpless. A time-honored international principle recognizes the right of any nation to apply its laws extraterritorially to actions that predictably and foreseeably cause domestic injury. Thus, the United States may punish as murder the killing of an individual on American soil by a person firing a shotgun from Mexico. Similarly, the United States is authorized to sanction any nation, for example, by denying it access to U.S. markets, whose greenhouse gas emissions predictably and proximately cause domestic damage by promoting global warming.
This approach does not eliminate risk because of the unknown dangers that could be associated with global warming. But neither does the optimal U.N. goal of restraining (but not eliminating) the rise of global temperatures by 2050.
All life entails risk. Better to devote energies to reducing risks that are politically feasible than to squander time and energy hoping for the politically impossible.
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