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The Economist Gives Up on Global Climate Treaties

The Economist has embraced the Via Meadia perspective on the futility of a global climate treaty. Once a believer in the global approach, it appears to have given up:

Each round of intergovernmental talks on cutting emissions and compensating victims seems to achieve less than the one before. [ . . . ]

[A new] study reveals the weak link between global action and domestic change. . . . [V]oters appear more willing to accept domestic environmental laws than international ones. If true, that is an indictment of years of green activism that has pushed for a global treaty first.

That’s pretty much what we’ve been saying for some time, and we haven’t gotten much thanks from the green movement for making the point. Just today a reader wrote in to accuse us of climate denial and asked if we believed in the theory of evolution. We hope the Economist meets with a kinder reception.

The Economist also brings us big news on the “settled science” of climate change. A new study has found soot to be twice as bad for climate as was previously thought, making it the second most damaging greenhouse agent after CO2. This is actually good news for two reasons.

First, soot is easier to control than CO2, and targeting that kind of pollution provides lots of benefits that have nothing to do with climate change: it’s a dangerous pollutant and a health threat on its own. Second, controlling soot will seriously slow the speed of climate change. One of the study’s authors told the Economist that fully addressing the soot problem would strip half a degree from potential warming, buying politicians and scientists more time to make informed decisions.

This is where we’ve been for some time: the global approach to reducing CO2 emissions is a dead end, and while the overall science about the climate seems well established, there are some significant fiddly bits that haven’t yet been worked out. There may be more surprises like soot in the works, some good, some bad, but in any case the details, the timing, and the consequences of climate change are less clear than the overall arc, and the case for particular policies is often significantly weaker than the overall case that climate change is under way.

Still, we shouldn’t abandon the global approach entirely even as we look for targets of opportunity like soot. The green movement’s biggest global policy success was 1987’s Montreal Protocol and subsequent revisions, all of which curbed the use of ozone-destroying CFCs. Like soot, CFCs presented a narrowly focused problem that had a relatively simple solution. There are alternatives to soot-producing diesel generators and engines, just like there were replacements for CFC propellants. A global anti-soot initiative probably won’t work given the special problems of the developing world, but there is a strong case for national action and reasonable chance that over time global action on soot could move forward.

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