Let’s review the climate diplomacy story so far. The elephant in the room at the UN negotiations has always been China, India, and other developing nations who have steadfastly refused to agree to future limits on their use of affordable hydrocarbon energy, which they rightly see as the path to becoming fully middle class nations as we and Europe did. The Chinese told Al Gore in Kyoto in 1997 when Gore was begging them to agree to future limits at some point: “We don’t understand you Americans; do you expect us to be poor forever?” The Indians were equally direct, telling Gore: “You people in the West got rich on fossil fuels, and now it is our turn. When we are as rich as you, then we’ll talk about emissions limits.” (I heard these accounts off the record from career State Department people who were present in Kyoto, and who were harshly critical of Gore’s role there.)
Here in this country it has always been obvious that an asymmetrical treaty that imposed higher costs on the U.S. than our trading partners would be economically disastrous. Bill Clinton’s economists told him this in 1998, which is why Clinton never lifted a finger to promote the Kyoto Protocol, and also why ratification of Kyoto was quietly dropped from the Democratic National Platform starting in 2004.
I’ve always thought the cynical play for China would be to come out with an offer to agree to bilateral emissions limits with the United States, which would remove the “China won’t go along” objection to emissions limits here. The Chinese would surely treat it as the Soviet Union treated arms control treaties—as a massive opportunity to cheat and gain further advantage over the U.S. Think we’d be any more effective with Chinese emissions violations that we are with their intellectual property theft and currency manipulation? (Brief aside: At the various UN climate negotiations, China has from time to time playfully suggested they might agree to some kind of emissions limits provided they were given tradable emission reduction credits for the results of the population control programs going back several decades. This always causes discomfort for the diplomats, most of whom privately approve of China’s one-child policy, but know that, as a matter of human rights, they can’t admit this publicly, though in these days of moral relativism and multiculturalism they would be hard pressed to give a coherent reason why.)
This is why my eyes perked up last weekend when I awoke to blazing headlines that Obama had reached a climate deal with the Chinese at his snap summit out in California. “First of Its Kind Climate Deal Reached by US and China,” said the headline in the Japan Times. “US-China Climate Deal Was Long in the Works, Reflects Shifting Incentive for Developing Nation,” the AP proclaimed. Had the Chinese finally gotten clever and decided to pick Obama’s pockets clean?
Turns out it is a very modest agreement, totally incommensurate with the headlines, that won’t touch energy use at all: The U.S. and China merely agreed to lower the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which ironically are the replacement chemicals for the CFCs that were phased out in the Montreal Protocol of 1987. HFCs are a potent greenhouse gas, but relatively easy pickings as these things go. In other words, this agreement hardly ranks as a “major” breakthrough from any point of view. But so desperate is the climate campaign and its media cheerleaders that any agreement, no matter how small, is heralded as a breakthrough.
Much more significant but contrarian, and hence naturally drawing no media attention at all, was the announcement from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (their version of our NAS) that it has translated into Chinese the Climate Change Reconsidered and Climate Change Reconsidered: 2011 Interim Report, products of the Heartland Institute’s Non-Governmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC—heh). These reports comprise over 1,200 pages of material that takes a sharply different view of the matter than the U.S. scientific establishment. Sounds like the Chinese scientific establishment has decided to sign up with the climate skeptics, or at least give their point of view a fair hearing instead of just resorting to name-calling. It’s enough to give any self-respecting member of the NAS here an embolism.
If you want to understand quickly and simply why China is never going to agree to any serious impediments on its energy use, check out this 24-second video I made a couple of years back of comparing coal use history and IEA projections for the United States and China through the year 2035.