Friday, December 2, 2011

Path Dependency

In comments today, the US negotiator in Durban Jonathan Pershing clearly illustrated the American strategy and why so many other countries are so frustrated with us. Last year in Mexico, there was a target adopted by the conference of limiting warming to 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F). While a great number of small and poor countries are trying to convince others to lower this target to 1.5 degrees C, most developed countries are debating how this target should best be reached. Responding to a question about whether the current commitments made by the US are sufficient to reach to the 2 degrees C target Pershing stated " has to marry a politically pragmatic outcome with a scientifically important conclusion. If you demand more than the politics can deliver, you don't succeed."

If you unpack it, this statement says quite a bit. It is an acknowledgment that domestic politics completely rule out aggressive action within the US right now. And really, who disputes that? Climate legislation, alternative energy and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions are not even on the radar screen for most Americans let alone politicians. This statement also signals the fact that the negotiators have not forgotten the lessons learned in the wake of the Kyoto Protocol. American negotiators in the Clinton administration were heavily involved in drafting the agreement which would later be known as the Kyoto Protocol but the treaty has never been approved by the Senate, which has to ratify any international treaty the US is party to. They may have succeeded in negotiating an agreement in the climate conference but they failed to consider that the politics at home would be toxic to such an agreement being signed. When pressed on this issue, Pershing stated that there are many ways to reach the 2 degrees C target. While acting aggressively now would make things easier we should not forget that what we are able to do later will be determined by what we do now. This is what he was referring to as "path dependency".

So, in the face of an intransigent Congress and an apathetic population what are the real options available for the Obama administration to take? Set ourselves up now to be able to move quickly later. What does that look like? Pershing's response was increased investments in R&D, science and math education, and a renewed emphasis on producing more doctorates in science and engineering. It is clear that the calculated gamble that the Obama administration is taking is that there is no appetite in the US to move aggressively on climate change right now but there will be in the future. So let's do what we can to move the rest of the world along some pathway towards 2 degrees C and hope that we can quickly mobilize our resources and innovative capacity to "catch up" sometime down the road after 2020. It sounds a little to me like planning on cramming for an exam the night before because you are too busy to study now.

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