Climate Change Realism

NEW YORK – “Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen,” a popular song from the 1952 film musical “Hans Christian Andersen,” will probably be played many times this fall, as world leaders will be gathering in the Danish capital in December (and in New York in September) to confront the challenge of climate change. But, unless international thinking gets considerably more realistic in a hurry, what happens in Copenhagen will be anything but wonderful.

It should come as no surprise that there is little consensus on a comprehensive accord that would have a meaningful impact on the world’s climate. Governments will not sacrifice near- and medium-term economic growth for long-term environmental benefits. This is especially true now, given that much of the developed world is in the midst of a painful recession. The United States, for one, will not accept ceilings that reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions significantly if it means accepting higher costs and taxes that risk slowing economic recovery.

Developing countries are, if anything, even more opposed to such ceilings or “caps.” Four hundred million Indians still lack electricity; India cannot be expected to rule out greater use of coal if that proves to be the best way to produce electricity for one-third of its citizens. China, too, is unlikely to agree to “caps” on emissions of any kind, given the relatively low standard of living of most Chinese. But such a stance dooms prospects for a new global treaty, as developed countries will rightly insist that poorer countries be part of the solution.

The consequences of failure in Copenhagen could be considerable. In the short run, we may well see climate-related concerns become the newest excuse for increased trade protectionism. So-called “carbon tariffs” are likely to be introduced to penalize imports from countries or companies deemed not to be doing enough to curb emissions. World trade is already down sharply as a result of the economic crisis; introducing new tariffs would inevitably reduce trade further, causing the loss of additional jobs and leading to new frictions.