What gives many of these misconceptions legs is their partial claim on truth, and this final instance offers another example. Climate change is a global problem, caused by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in a single atmosphere all of us share. If one country emits a million tons of carbon less and another a million more, the net effect is no change at all. Every coal plant in China affects the future climate in North America, just as every coal plant in North America affects China.
On top of that, the relative quantities of carbon emissions are shifting from the industrialized to the developing world, as China, India and other countries begin to catch up in the per capita size of their economies. This is entirely justified, since low and moderate income countries need the boost that fossil fuels provide much more than upper income countries do. There won’t and shouldn’t be a global agreement in which every country cuts its carbon emissions at the same rate. In fact, by all appearances the world is far from any kind of meaningful agreement at all.
Nevertheless, if activists in countries like the US succeed in bringing about serious carbon policies, it will have a global impact, for three reasons.
First, at the present time the wealthier countries are responsible for about half the new carbon being introduced into the carbon cycle. (They are also responsible for the vast majority of previous additions that have contributed to today’s greenhouse gas accumulations, but this can’t be undone.) If they can begin making big cuts, they will still be big on a global scale, at least for the first decade or so of cutting. It’s worth doing.
Second, the US plays a pivotal role in the global politics of just about everything. It possesses the world’s second largest economy (if you lump the EU together as a single entity, which, politically, it's not), the world’s pre-eminent military force, and the world’s most aggressive ruling elite. At present the US is at the center of resistance to mandatory controls on carbon. Even the NSA has been enlisted to make sure that other countries follow the US script in climate negotiations. If US policy were to change significantly, it might have a galvanizing effect on enough other countries to make a global framework achievable. To be honest, we don’t know how large this effect would prove to be, but it is surely worth a try.
Finally, international cooperation does not have to be universal to be meaningful. If the US, the EU and Japan, for instance, were to jointly set up a serious carbon tax or permit system without the initial participation of any other countries, they would constitute the nucleus of a global regime. Additional participants could be attracted with various inducements and penalties. In particular, as I will argue in the next post, side payments can be offered to less affluent countries that join the club, while tariffs can be placed on imports from countries that don’t limit carbon emissions, based on the cost advantages their non-policy gives them. If forestalling catastrophic climate change is a primary goal of foreign policy—and why wouldn’t it be?—there are forceful but mostly cooperative tools that can be used to get there.
Cynicism and defeatism are never very attractive political attributes, but they are even less tolerable when voiced by citizens of a country like the United States that uses every available means to get what it wants for far less noble objectives.