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Paris climate agreement is a triumph of hope over facts

By Tom Switzer - posted Monday, 4 January 2016

Illusions are dangerous, particularly in politics. Writing in the 1930s, the liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr observed: "The prestige of the international community is not great enough to achieve a communal spirit sufficiently unified to discipline recalcitrant nations." And he warned against "a too uncritical glorification of co-operation and mutuality" between powers with opposing national interests. Yet it is the prospect of global co-operation and mutuality that so many politicians and journalists today glorify. On climate change, the argument goes, political convergence is inevitable. Barack Obama, ironically an admirer of Niebuhr, hails this month's UN accord to cut emissions as a historic breakthrough. Indeed, for many influential writers – Thomas Friedman from The New York Times, for example – the Paris climate agreement is a "big, big deal". In reality, it represents a triumph of wishes over facts.

True, nations have agreed to volunteer their carbon-cutting promises to the IPCC every five years. But they don't have to set ambitious goals. Nor are they required to meet their targets, because there is no penalty for non-compliance. No disciplining recalcitrant nations here. Unlike the Kyoto treaty in 1997, Paris is not legally binding. Nations can provide excuses for failure and pledge to do better next time. That's a victory in so far as the UN process continues, but there is a distinct lack of progress in slashing emissions. No wonder the most prominent climate activists – from Jim Hansen in the US to George Monbiot in Britain – are outraged. Climate enthusiasts say Paris heralds a move to a zero-carbon economy. Somebody forgot to tell Malcolm Turnbull. Within days of Paris, his government announced approval for one of the world's largest coal mines. Environmentalists should not be shocked. According to the International Energy Agency, south-east Asian coal demand will triple for at least 25 years and Australia will be the world's largest coal exporter by 2020.

China's leaders, we are told, are leading us to planetary carbon salvation. For a reality check, consult a new report published by the London-based Global Warming Policy Foundation. "With China's economic growth faltering, the last thing the Communist Party wants is to hobble its economy further by curtailing the use of fossil fuels upon which its economy depends," writes Patricia Adams in The Truth About China. "A major cutback in fossil fuels use represents an existential threat to the Communist Party's rule. It simply isn't going to happen."


All that China will commit to, Adams argues, is to continue to improve the energy efficiency of its economy as it grows – a goal it has long pursued. It only says it will start reducing emissions in 2030. Still think China is a green leader? On the eve of the summit, Beijing revealed it had burned 17 per cent more coal a year than it had formally disclosed.

What about India? This month Coal India confirmed that coal production would double in the next decade. Why? Because millions of Indians still live in the dark, their leaders are unwilling to accept anything that depresses their economic growth and carbon remains the cheapest source of energy to reduce poverty.

The Paris crowd hails the global climate fund, where rich nations foot the bill – $100 billion a year from 2020 onwards – for climate mitigation in the developing world. Don't bet on it. This year, the developed world raised less than one hundredth! And it is far from clear how a climate-sceptic US Congress contributes the lion's share. Imagine an American politician asking voters to pay higher taxes so Uncle Sam can help China become energy efficient and more economically competitive. Climateers treat catastrophic global warming as established fact, but climate sensitivity still appears to be at the low end of the IPCC's range while greening the global economy is not a cost-free exercise. The conventional wisdom always stresses the benefits of decarbonisation. It rarely acknowledges the costs, especially for the non-OECD nations that account for about 60 per cent of global emissions.

Unfashionable though it is to say so, the best way to deal with climate change is through economic growth so nations, especially poorer ones, are better able to adapt to environmental challenges. What will also help is entrepreneurial spirit. Think of the free-market revolution known as fracking, which emits half as much as carbon, and the Bill Gates-led green energy innovation fund.

By contrast, command-and-control mechanisms lack broad public support – think of the backlash against Labor's carbon tax – and amount to lost jobs, lower growth and higher prices up and down the energy chain. And none of the renewable energy sources is as remotely efficient as carbon.

Some might say climate change represents such a grave threat to humanity that the world will come together to end fossil fuels entirely. But history is not on their side. International agreements do not guarantee practical outcomes while multilateral bodies do not hasten the process of harmonisation and political convergence.


The Kellogg-Briand Pact in Paris outlawed war about a decade before the outbreak of World War II. Test ban and anti-proliferation treaties have not stopped states bent on creating nuclear arsenals. The UN is not a moral arbiter nor is it an effective law-making body. The interests of its member states are too diverse. It is relevant as a forum where disputes and grievances are aired. But the agreements the UN reaches, even when they command broad support, are all too often violated when they clash with vital national interests.

The point here is an old one, brilliantly encapsulated by Niebuhr, about the naivety of liberal internationalists. The selfishness of nations, he argued, is proverbial. The politicians talked a big game at Paris, but they simply preserved their illusions intact.

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This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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About the Author

Tom Switzer is a fellow of the Australian Institute for Progress and a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He is a former editor of the Australian Spectator.

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