Last Lectures and Global Climate Change

Today was my last day of lectures at Sun Yat-sen University, both devoted to climate change. I think I struck a very nice final cord with my undergraduates in discussing the potential severity of the problem and motivating them to invest in whatever concerns, in whatever field, they deem important. My graduate-level lecture, which included faculty attendance, focused on U.S.-China Relations and Climate Policy. It was an extremely lively, friendly, and exciting discussion, but at the end of the day I found the faculty views (not the students’) troubling because not a one was willing to accept any condition whereby China should agree to cap its overall greenhouse gas emissions, even in a hypothetical scenario where the West compensated China and developed countries cut emissions levels to zero. This essentially parrots the view of the Chinese government. (In terms of my government, I view U.S. policy on the issue to be weak; proposed reductions too small and resources to others too little.)

By some European newspaper accounts, this conclusion by the Chinese (possibly Hu Jintao himself) is what sent the French President over the edge at the Copenhagen climate meetings in December 2009, and it is unreasonble in light of the scientific reality which is this—even if all countries except China reduced their greenhouse gas emission to zero today, China’s current rate of development could lead to catatrosphic climate events.

Understand, I’m not saying developing countries should not be compensated (they should, through green technology transfer and resources to increase standards of living). I’m not saying that countries should not develop.

I am saying that the U.S. has absolutely failed to be a leader on the climate issue. But I am also saying that science dictates some overall global emissions cap in an effort to avoid the accepted necessary 2 degree Celsius increase limit in global temperatures. This means some emissions cap (however high) for the developing world, which can be coupled with even greater reductions and resources from the developed world. Or it at least means that there must be some recognition that if the developed world finally came to the realization that this is a moral/ethical issue (as some Europeans have) and did everything possible to cut emissions that the developing world would respond in kind.

Given each countries’ foreign policy and political climate, current U.S. climate policy is an embarrassment, driven by economics, while current China climate policy is callous, driven by economics.

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