Did we need unanimity in Copenhagen? (Part 2)

Debating the intricacies of a climate treaty is not, however, precisely like the ultimatum game because if the first player has their distribution rejected, he doesn’t actually lose all that much. If China and India walk away without any climate goals, all the better for them, in their minds. They were forced to the table to begin with and may have been bargaining in bad faith to start. They actually win when we merely reject their compromises. If the United States truly wants to combat global warming, AND punish China for being so grasping, then it should actually create a punishment scheme that will force the Chinese to bargain better in future games rather than simply rejecting binding treaties wholesale.

Here’s a crazy thought. Europe, Japan, the United States, and all the other countries that care about emissions should just create their own treaty of capping and trading (preferably), or taxing carbon emissions, or etc. They should then announce that they will extend tariffs on products from any countries that do not participate in the treaty or cannot verify that their emissions are below some target. Countries will have carbon emissions monitored by an international agency, and if they (or individual manufacturers) choose to refuse the monitors, then they can eat the tariffs. China and India and other industrialized or developing countries with export economies also have a large incentive to cede to international pressure because they are dependent on the consumer markets of Europe, Japan, and the United States. Importantly, I suspect this will please Americans and could appease Senate Democrats enough to lead to an actual international treaty ratification and domestic climate bill, because if China and India do not comply, then American manufacturing will be (or at least seem to be) more competitive in the international market, and American politicians/Democrats love pandering to U.S. laborers. If they do comply, then Americans are still on no worse footing than the status quo in terms of competitiveness, and should be finally willing to ratify a binding treaty.

One thing to consider is free trade agreements. According to the WTO, countries may enact tariffs on other countries to pursue “noneconomic” goals–presumably saving our environment/future is a noneconomic goal like, say, abolishing slavery or ending a genocide. We also shouldn’t fear reciprocal tariffs since, as we said before, China and India are exporters and would have far more to lose than we do as consumers. Their supply of cheap labor can be replaced by any developing country open to investment, while their free-spending consumers are much harder to come by. Of course, the best case scenario is if Western consumers could exercise enough self-control and refuse to purchase products that weren’t climate-certified by some international agency, but it may not be prudent to trust the fate of the world on the foresight of the Western consumer.

I recognize that this may seem a little extreme and perhaps even “political suicide” (and as such I welcome feedback and criticism), but at some point we need to decide whether or not the problem is extreme enough to warrant extreme measures. If global warming is real, and we think it will actually flood our coasts, or lead to another ice age, then we cannot do enough to either try to stop it ourselves regardless of China/India participation, or force them to help us ‘save the world.’ If we were talking about nuclear weapons, and not global warming, and China and India were non-signatories to non-proliferation treaties and were making and selling nukes, I guarantee you that there would be more serious negotiation than we saw in Copenhagen. If we were talking about missile shields, economic sanctions would definitely be on the table. Is the threat of global warming less serious than nuclear annihilation? It’s time for the United States to wake up, smell the CO2, and figure out how serious of a threat it thinks global warming will become. If we decide, like a consensus of scientists, that it is not only real, probably, and catastrophic, we should enter into binding treaties with Europe and Japan to control green house gases, and if our elected officials have the political courage, we should force China and India into joining that covenant as well.

I wrote the above post before reading Alex’s comment on Part 1. He’s right that there’s something unfair about forcing developing nations into climate change treaties when industrialized nations benefited from being allowed to emit more carbon, and to an extent contributed most to today’s global warming problem. This may be true, but once again we return to the dual adages of life not being fair, and the justifiability of employing of slightly less fair practices in the pursuit of self-preservation. If forcing China and India into a treaty is the only way to start curbing global warming, then it’s necessary for us to do so to save ourselves, and in fact save them as well. We can’t just sit by  acknowledging that there’s a difficult ‘quandary’ while watching the world fall apart around us.

It also seems slightly less unfair, to me, to nudge countries with incentive-producing tariffs compared to coercion at gunpoint. There is no natural right to free trade, and there’s no reason Americans need the cheapest possible products. We employ free trade because it’s efficient and mutually beneficial, and when it fails to be those things, there’s no reason to have it. In a sense these tariffs, like sin taxes and humanitarian-based sanctions, are intended to serve in place of the consumer’s rational decision-making–the Western consumer should not be purchasing products built by slave labor, that fund genocidal wars, or in this case, products that will slowly lead to the destruction of their civilizations through the effects of global warming. Due to the collectivization problem, we should employ a government-imposed tariff rather than rely on a consumer-imposed boycott.

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One thought on “Did we need unanimity in Copenhagen? (Part 2)

  1. There are a number of dicey issues on the table, many of which you’ve addressed, David.

    First, ‘coercion at gunpoint’ is not really on the table, so sanctions/tariffs are probably the biggest political ‘tool’ we have to try to push China and India into green-house gas compliance. (It is a fair point that we are punishing them for developing and industrializing later, but there’s not much we can really do about that reality now).

    I think you’re underestimating the political benefits of any such Tariff for the U.S. Levying ballsy tariffs on China (which is what it would take to really pressure the Chinese government) would severely impact U.S. consumers and the many U.S. companies that have production facilities in China. Prices on a lot of goods would increase significantly, and that is rarely politically popular. Yes, it might spur some growth in domestic industry (though that would take time), but I’m hard-pressed to think that companies would seek to relocate to the United States — there are too many disincentives to produce here. I feel like there would be a number of alternative locations that might be willing to sign a Climate Treaty and still retain lax labor/environmental standards. If production shifted to those places, both consumers (through slightly higher costs associated with the transition) and producers (the same) are worse off.

    In addition, China and India could easily respond with their own tariffs — a reality which could potentially exacerbate potential economic shocks by wresting control of the process from U.S. lawmakers. America, at this point, is totally dependent on foreign goods. (There are also probably some humanitarian arguments floating out there about hurting Chinese/Indian growth… would Tariffs ultimately put millions of Chinese laborers out of work? I don’t think the Senate should necessarily concern itself with that point, but it’s a consideration).

    Even if we put aside the fact that corporations are likely to lobby against any action that might impact their bottom line (and when do they not have their say?), perhaps the bigger question becomes whether U.S. consumers/voters are willing to make the sacrifices for such a nebulous, ‘far off’, problem. It certainly doesn’t help that some preposterous percentage refuses to buy into the science of Climate Change at all, and many more are unwilling to give up some utility for political ends. I’m not sure they are, frankly.

    I think the consequences of Tariffs are likely too high for how concerned the American people are about climate change to be a politically successful tactic. You’re right that nuclear weapons were better at galvanizing the public to back action, but I think Americans are far more likely to simply pay lip-service to some greenhouse gas controls, or maybe just buy a Prius. The problem does not feel very pressing, even though, by most accounts it is. It doesn’t help that the biggest consequences are often described as decades away, and disproportionately likely to hurt the third world. It’s also hard to keep an issue relevant over many years given the American attention span (An Inconvenient Truth won an Oscar several years ago! Who still cares!).

    Perhaps the answer partly lies on capitalizing on America’s increasingly bullshit pagan-like religious leanings. I am reminded of an op-ed piece last week (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/12/opinion/12blow.html). Otherwise, we’re banking on “The Day After Tomorrow” to explain to people why their Macbook suddenly costs $2,000 instead of $1,000… and what politician could back something like that?

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