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WashPost: The Summit of Green Futility

Author: Anne Applebaum
July 14, 2009

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Anne Applebaum writes that economic inventives rather than summit diplomacy will create the conditions necessary for a significant reduction in worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

Two headlines caught my eye last week. "Summit Leaders in Climate Deal" read the one on the front page of the Wall Street Journal Europe. Above it was a picture of 10 smiling heads of state -- the leaders of the Group of Eight, plus China and India. Below was an article that, in contradiction to the cheerful photograph, described how the world's political leaders had failed, once again, to halt climate change by decree. The group could not agree on short-term emissions targets, could not agree on how developing countries would be compensated for meeting the targets and, indeed, could not even decide from what baseline any targets would be calculated.

Buried on Page 21 of the same newspaper was a story headlined "Ill Winds Blow for Clean Energy"; the picture was of oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who has just decided to postpone, until further notice, an investment in a big Texas wind farm. Natural gas prices have fallen so low, it seems, that once-promising investments in alternative energy no longer make sense. Banks that once might have financed such large-scale investments are now unwilling to do so. And thus business leaders are also failing, once again, to halt climate change through technology and entrepreneurship.

Let me be clear: I do not doubt the reality of climate change. I have long accepted that human use of fossil fuels has caused it, and I agree that great efforts should be made to reduce carbon emissions, as well as our politically risky dependence on oil and gas. But I do doubt the wisdom of assuming that eight or 10 politicians will ever solve this problem during a meeting at a conference center, in Italy or any other country. I also question whether even several hundred politicians -- plus their scientific advisers, assorted environmentalists and lobbyists -- will solve this problem at the Copenhagen climate super-summit scheduled for December. At that time, the original signatories of the Kyoto Protocol are supposed to renew their vows and the U.S. delegation is supposed to bow its head and rejoin the club. If everyone can agree, new emissions targets will be set. They will be as unenforceable as the emissions targets we have now.

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