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Climate Obstacles Ahead

Author: Sebastian Mallaby, Paul A. Volcker Senior Fellow for International Economics
November 26, 2007
Washington Post


The good news on climate change is that the world wants to do something. It’s no longer just the Europeans and a few fellow travelers; a recent survey suggested that 96 percent of South Koreans and 66 percent of Ukrainians regard global warming as an important threat. The latest report from the Nobel-anointed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change got the blanket media coverage it warranted. In the United States, business and congressional leaders have decided action is inevitable.

Then there is the bad news: None of these fine sentiments will matter unless a critical mass of countries unites around a real policy. And unity is miles away. Former Treasury secretary Larry Summers remarked recently that today’s climate debate is like the U.S. health-care debate of 15 years ago. People agree that action is essential, but they disagree so fiercely on the details that action may prove impossible.

Start with the international arena. Delegates from around the world will meet next month in Bali, supposedly to launch negotiations on a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol. But there is no consensus on what these negotiations should accomplish. Should they aim to create some kind of global cap-and-trade system? Should they go for a series of narrower agreements on biofuels, forest conservation and so on? Should they help countries adapt to global warming, since some warming is inevitable, or emphasize efforts to stop the warming in its tracks? The first task in Bali will be to negotiate what to negotiate about.

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