Under normal circumstances, few people should care about the Paris climate deal. This kind of stuff is mostly just technocratic. There is a problem and they are just working out how to solve it. Indeed, 20 years ago, it would have been just that. But when one of the major political parties in the most powerful country on earth refuses to acknowledge that the problem is real, things are different. Then, getting anything done at all is a big deal. And that’s why this agreement is a big deal.
What’s different about this agreement is that it is not legally binding. But the question is: does that really matter? Brad Plumer wrote a really interesting article that provides a brief history of the failure of previous climate deals, Past Climate Treaties Failed. So the Paris Deal Will Try Something Radically Different. But the real takeaway here was this, “No treaty is truly binding.” That’s right. Countries mostly abide by their treaties because they want to be part of the civilized world. Even at that level, humans are still social. But more than that, there is the economic issue.
I’m all too aware of the conservative response to this. We have already heard people claiming that this will just allow Russia (which has set insignificant goals) to get ahead of us. But I think this is a total misunderstanding of the way that economics works. Listening to the Republican debates, I’ve been really annoyed hearing about how doing something about climate change will hurt our economy. This is taken as a given. But it is actually rather the opposite that ought to be given. We aren’t going to grow our economy in the long-term by making it ever more dependent on the new energy technology of a century and a half ago.
What we are getting from the Republicans — and what we always get from them — is not an argument for economic growth. It is an argument for the status quo. They care about securing the profits of those who are already rich. Look at who is the biggest funder of the Republican Party: the Koch brothers. Their wealth comes from oil. They don’t see clean energy as a way to help our shared economy; they see it as a threat to their short term profits. And the Republicans rush to defend their interests, using the specious argument that they are looking out for all of us.
So Russia looks like it is going to do what Russia has traditionally done: look backwards. As it is, the Russian economy is highly dependent upon selling oil. So this makes some sense. But it is shortsighted. I think that’s especially true because we have been going through a period of revolution regarding green energy. I fully expect countries like Costa Rica (which put forward an ambitious program) to look back in ten or twenty years and see that they have not only been able to do a lot more, but that their economy is much better as a result.
We really have two choices here. We can look backward and continue to harm the earth. This will lead to more economic stagnation. Or we can look forward and mitigate the damage we are doing. This will lead to a more vibrant economy. That’s it. This really is what it’s all about. The only upside for continuing on as we have been is that it allows installed interests to continue to make money. The economies that are going to be strong in the future are the ones that embrace green energy today. And I think that alone will cause this climate deal to be a success.