Pope, President, Prices and Paris. That covers just about everything you need to know about the next step in the battle to prevent what has come to be called climate change, the title now preferred to “global warming” by those who worry that CO2 emissions are causing, er, global warming. The Pope has issued his encyclical, President Barack Obama has issued his executive orders, myriad countries have already filed their goals and plans with the United Nations as agreed in Peru last December, and representatives of some 200 countries and myriad organizations have lined up hotel rooms for an early December in Paris. That meeting might well be dubbed an environmental synod, given the lead role Pope Francis has chosen to play in ridding the world of fossil fuels, the cheapest source of energy and economic growth available to the poor nations for which he professes the greatest concern.
The individual plans will form the core of the agreement that all nations are expected to sign in Paris. Most observers feel that this bottom-up approach is far more likely to produce tangible results than past efforts that relied on the handing down of rules and quotas by experts and politicians, a set of rules known as the Kyoto Protocol. The US signed on in 1998, but then-President Bill Clinton dared not send it to the senate for the confirmation necessary to convert the Protocol into a treaty after that body voted unanimously to reject it, given the opportunity. That stripped the Protocol of practical meaning, and sent vice president Al Gore on an international tour to proclaim impending doom.
President Obama anticipates similar opposition in the senate, which must approve all treaties, and has decided to treat the Paris deal as just that, and not elevate it to treaty status. Which means that the next president can simply walk away from it, either formally or by refusing to follow through on any measures to which Obama agreed. But Obama feels he is on a roll. Buoyed by his success in by-passing congress on immigration, environmental regulations, important features of his health care plans, and the de facto legalization of marijuana in several states, Obama is taking the lead in Paris, backed now by the moral authority of the Pope. Which is no small thing. Several Catholic institutions here, including universities and religious orders, have begun divesting themselves of holdings in coal and other greenhouse-gas-emitting energy sources. The “Pope of Rome” might not have any divisions, as Stalin pointed out when asked by the French to ameliorate the condition of Russia’ Catholics, but as Churchill later noted, The Holy Father has “a number of legions not always visible on parade.”
Environmental groups are hoping that the Pope’s encyclical will put pressure on contenders for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination -- Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal are Catholic -- to moderate their opposition to regulations to curtail the use of fossil fuels. But Jeb Bush, the current favorite in the race for the nomination, told an audience “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.”
The American plan submitted by Obama provides for the Environmental Protection Agency to issue regulations to reduce emissions from cars, trucks and power plants by 28% from 2005 levels by 2025. He has also persuaded China to agree to halt the increase in its emissions by 2030, and then begin reducing them. There is irony here: America is basing its emission reduction program on command-and-control regulations. Don’t blame Obama. Adam-Smith-reading conservatives in congress shot down the President’s original market-based plan, called cap-and-trade, which allowed polluters to trade permits so that the lowest-cost reductions carry the burden of reducing emissions.
For consolation Obama is counting on the support of Pope Francis for his fallback regulatory plan. The pope’s distrust of markets is deep-rooted, and he views with horror the prospect of evil speculators benefitting from any permit-trading scheme such as the one created in 1990 and credited with cleaning America’s air at minimal cost. While the largest capitalist country in the world relies on the long arm of government to attain its goal, the largest communist country in the world, China, is experimenting with seven market-based systems, and plans to introduce a nation-wide permit-trading program next year – relying on an almost invisible hand. While Karl Marx spins in his grave, Adam Smith smiles down on his new disciples, whose visitors to Britain often trek to Kirkcaldy, in Scotland, to visit Adam Smith’s birthplace and to Edinburgh to pay homage at his gravesite. Visits by Chinese tourists to the grave purchased for Karl Marx by Friedrich Engels at London’s Highgate Cemetery have fallen off, although that trend might be reversed when China’s masses tally up their stock-market losses and decide that capitalist style risk-taking is not for them.
Political leaders of the G7 industrialized countries want to “decarbonize” the global economy over the course of this century. Less developed countries are prepared to help out if the richer countries hand them $100 billion in development aid, which the industrialized countries again promise to raise. Even with their cooperation, it won’t be easy to meet the goal of cutting CO2 emissions by 40%-70% from 2010 levels by 2050. Canada’s prime minister, Bruce Harper, sums it up best, “I don’t think we should fool ourselves, nobody’s going to shut down their industries or turn off the lights.” In America, 55% of owners of hybrid and electric vehicles are switching to gasoline-powered vehicles, with the preference for giant SUVs nearly double the rate of three years ago, thanks to fracking and cheap petrol.
One consensus emerging in advance of the Paris conclave is that the American approach to emissions reduction is the most costly and least efficient on the table. Yet, as Rob Stavins, highly regarded head of Harvard’s Environmental Economics Program points out in an interview with the New York Times, “The only way to do this is to send information through markets.” The best way to send that information is by imposing a carbon tax on emitters. So far, conservatives, who instinctively recoil at the word “tax”, won’t have it. But one pundit important to conservatives told me at dinner last week, “In 2017 whoever is elected president will have promised to reform our tax structure. At that time, carbon taxes will be on the table.” An out-of-office Obama might then get what he originally asked for.