As the Paris climate talks begin, the die is already cast: The world is going to move toward cleaner, more sustainable sources of energy. The question for U.S. policymakers is whether the world’s biggest economy gets left behind.
President Barack Obama is trying his best to ensure this doesn’t happen. He told the world leaders assembled in Paris that he saw the effects of global warming firsthand on a recent trip to Alaska. He wanted to make clear, he said, “that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it.”
Obama has set a target of reducing U.S. carbon emissions, over the next decade, to a level at least 26 percent below what they were in 2005. Republicans in Congress — and on the presidential campaign trail — vow to do everything they can to sabotage this effort, claiming it will be bad for the economy. But if the naysayers succeed, they will only guarantee that the other great industrial powers, China and Europe, dominate the new energy landscape.
Of the nearly 200 nations gathered in Paris, 183 have set targets for limiting heat-trapping carbon emissions. Whether or not the summit produces a comprehensive agreement, the clean-energy train already has left the station.
It is fitting that such a hopeful gathering takes place in a city that recently saw such tragedy. It is also fitting that it comes amid what is, with just a month to go, the warmest year since global record-keeping began.
The basic facts are not in dispute among scientists: The large-scale burning of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution has sharply increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 40 percent, and this increase, because of the greenhouse effect, has warmed the planet. Nor are the facts in dispute among policymakers in most capitals other than Washington, D.C.
Sea levels are measurably rising. Glaciers are rapidly melting. Weather patterns are obviously changing. Deniers look like bratty children, with their hands clamped over their ears, going “na-na-na-na-na.”
China, which pumps far more carbon into the atmosphere than any other country, has announced a goal of limiting its emissions so that they peak “around” 2030. Cynics point out that this is roughly when they would peak anyway, given current trends. But that’s because China’s emissions, at present, are barely growing at all — at most a 1 percent increase in 2014 and probably less this year.
Two important things have happened in China. First, the nation’s leaders have come to realize that the noxious, choking, particulate-laden smog that periodically blankets major cities poses a real threat to the Communist Party’s legitimacy. Having ushered hundreds of millions into the urban middle class, the leadership is obliged to provide a reasonably safe environment for these people to raise their children. Eliminating the smog means cutting back on burning coal, which is relatively “dirty” not just in spewing particulates but also in the amount of carbon dioxide it produces.
The other big development in China is that the leadership is making a huge bet on clean energy. In the third quarter of this year, China saw $26.7 billion invested in solar, wind and other clean-energy technologies, as compared with $13.4 billion in the United States, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
About 17 percent of the world’s solar power capacity is in China, according to Bloomberg, as are about a third of the world’s wind turbines and a third of all the nuclear power reactors under construction. A new clean-energy economy is already taking shape; the only question is whether the United States sits by and lets others reap the coming benefits.
The Paris summit could yet fail; India, the third-biggest carbon emitter, balks at limits that would curb its economic growth and wants rich countries to help it bear the cost of leapfrogging the “dirty” stage of development. Even if the meeting reaches an agreement, it will not be a legally binding treaty. And scientists warn that the limits pledged thus far will not achieve the best-case goal of keeping warming to less than 3.6 degrees by the end of the century.
Clean energy, once a pipe dream, now has both mass and momentum. This gathering of world leaders in the City of Light is a stunning rebuke to those who would prefer to curse the darkness.
Eugene Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist. Email him at email@example.com.