China, India Blow Copenhagen Out of the Water

By David L. Brown

One of the most pleasing phrases in the human language (to the speaker, at least), is “I told you so.” Thus, my recent essay on why the upcoming Copenhagen meeting on climate change was unlikely to produce anything important is proven prescient by the following excerpt from an editorial in Investors Business Daily, posted Friday on its web site Investors.com (read it here):

Climate Change: With less than two months to go before the big Copenhagen Conference on global warming, two major nations have said “no thanks” to the no-growth agenda. For that reason alone, so should we.

Following a deal signed late Thursday between China and India, anything we might agree to do in Copenhagen is likely moot anyway. The two mega-nations — which together account for nearly a third of the world’s population — said they won’t go along with a new climate treaty being drafted in Copenhagen to replace the Kyoto Protocol that expires in 2012.

I wrote about this on October 6 in an essay titled “High Hopes for Copenhagen May Be Dashed,” and now I can afford to crow because without China and India — representing the two largest nations in population and among the fastest growing in terms of industrialization — the Copenhagen accords are unlikely to become reality. That’s especially true if, as IBD suggests, “[O]ther developing nations, including Mexico, Brazil and South Africa, will likely reject any proposals as well.”

When the Kyoto Protocol was launched in 1997, developing countries were quick to sign on because the agreement gave them a “get out of jail free card,” by exempting them from limits on CO2 and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The idea was to let the “developing” countries continue to develop while the First World nations, and most particularly the United States, were expected to fix the whole problem. The attitude was “You made this mess, you fix it. Meanwhile, it’s our turn.”

Now that it has become crystal clear that climate change is a global problem, and that developing nations may stand the most to lose, the new agreement sets forth a universal effort that would include all nations in a worldwide program to reduce GHG emissions. To which we see the interesting reaction from those who were all too eager to sign on as long as they didn’t have to do anything to slow or reform their own economies. Now, like characters in the story of the Little Red Hen, they are telling us in no uncertain terms, and in the Mandarin and Hindu equivalents: “No way, José.”

The IBD editorial concluded:

Even with their participation, Copenhagen should have been a non-starter for the U.S. Indeed, the main reason for the greenhouse gas deal, all but admitted to by its major participants, is to cripple the U.S. economy — the most successful economy in the world.

True enough, as green critics keep saying, we produce nearly 20% of the world’s CO2 and other greenhouse gases with just 5% of the world’s population. But our GDP of roughly $14 trillion is nearly 25% of the world’s total — in line with our gas output.

As I noted in my previous essay on October 6, the developing nations have attempted to re-cast the argument from a national to a per-capita measuring stick, and while that brings its own problems it’s not entirely unfair. However, a per-GDP approach might make even more sense, and as you can see on that basis the U.S. stands in pretty good stead, producing a quarter of world GDP while emitting only a fifth of greenhouse gas. One could make the argument from this that the U.S. should be allocated less stringent limits while the rapidly industrializing Chinese and Indian economies should be reined in hard. Of course, that most certainly ain’t gonna happen, thus the conclusion that Copenhagen is doomed to failure.

Of course there is the chance that in some form of national suicide in the name of political correctness, our administration might sign onto the program almost unilaterally while the developing nations head for cover. That would be a wonderful moral stand, worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize perhaps, but unfortunately should the U.S. attempt to take on its shoulders the Sisyphean task of rolling the global warming boulder back up the mountain, it will surely share the fate of the original Sisyphus, confronted by unending frustration and woe.

As has been pointed out, every barrel of oil that the U.S. does not consume, someone else will, probably someone in China or India. No matter how much we attempt to reduce GHGs, the new industrialization now running rampant in the developing nations will continue to pour CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and other gases into the air. In the end, we will have beggared ourselves for the benefit of others, and climate change will continue apace.

It is true that in the longer run, anything the U.S. does to reduce its use of non-renewable energy will benefit us. It’s hard to argue about that, but the problem is that the reward is on the other side of a  wide and yawning Grand Canyon of economic cost and commitment, and with the present state of affairs and declining resources, it will be a very difficult journey indeed to get to the other side.

There is one ironic point about all this, and that is that industrial growth is naturally limited thanks to depletion of resources and  the rising costs of developing and applying them. The developing nations already are banging against this metaphorical ceiling. We have entered a yo-yo world economy that is hitting the limits to growth* due to the petroleum supply-demand situation. There isn’t enough oil, and particularly cheap and easily developed oil, to allow the world’s economies to continue to improve themselves as they have in the past through increased use of resources.

The ceiling is there, and it is real.  No matter how hard they try, those “developing” economies will keep hitting it and being knocked back Each time the world economy starts to “grow,” the cost of oil and other natural resources will rise and put on the brakes. We have seen this pattern clearly in the past couple of years, and it is not an anomaly but the new reality. For those who have been observant, the signs of this looming calamity have been apparent for decades.

In a perfect world, every government on the planet would recognize the long-term and even relatively short-term dangers of climate change and the futility of continued industrial growth. Considering the future cost to their people, they would enthusiastically join in to solve the problems before civilization is destroyed.

Reality check: This is not a perfect world. One might say, with considerable truth, that it is a very imperfect world, at least from the perspective of the human race, which seems content to turn the problem over to Nature, or Gaia. She knows what to do. She is doing it now. It will not be pretty.

• Note: “The Limits to Growth” was the title of a book published by the Club of Rome in 1972. It was one of the first clarion calls of warning about what was to occur. Now, 37 years later, we are beginning to learn the lesson the hard way. And, here’s an interesting point: In 1972 nobody even knew about global warming and climate change — that’s another confounding factor altogether, one that has assumed major importance.

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