Saturday, November 22, 2008

Treaties can work

The recent news about climate change in the U.S. has been dominated by the EPA appeals panel's decision to block a coal plant's permit, which has stopped permitting of about 100 U.S. coal plants until the Obama administration can decide what to do about them.

But this press release (via Michael Tobis) struck me as being quite important too. Countries are agreeing to destroy stocks of CFCs, which cause global warming, under the Montreal Protocol, which was designed to address stratospheric ozone depletion. The end effect could be quite significant: 6 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalents with possibly more later.

As I wrote before, I'm not going to deal with global warming denialism with regard to science -- there will always be Flat Earthers. But there's a more subtle form of denialism that says that we can't do anything about global warming. This manifests itself, among other ways, in a conviction that countries can't agree to manage their infrastructure: their national interests will differ too much, or it will be too expensive, or, if they agree, they'll cheat. The Montreal Protocol is a standing rebuke to those people. In fact, the Montreal Protocol has worked as I expect global warming agreements to -- once people make a commitment to change an industry, it can change quite quickly, and people naturally use the new infrastructure without a lot of voluntary coaxing or permit trading. The CFC stocks planned to be destroyed are being destroyed because once people built alternatives, no one really needs them.

Update: and see this (via John Quiggin). I expect that market mechanisms to reduce carbon emissions will prove to be just as reliable and well-behaved as every other market just now.


  1. "But there's a more subtle form of denialism that says that we can't do anything about global warming."

    I suspect that 'climate change denier' will soon be on a par with 'racist' as an accusation of the sort of seriousness that you don't want to chuck about too lightly. And in that spirit whilst what you describe here is clearly a kind of denial, mightn't it have less absolute varieties that are worth taking seriously? I'm thinking of something along the lines of "we can do some things about global warming, but if those things come into conflict with the embedded self-interest of capital and the market status quo they're likely not to happen." If governments can gain political capital out of practising climate-related virtue then they will provided it doesn't rock the financial boat too severely: destroying stocks of CFCs looks to me like that sort of thing. Not that it's not welcome, but that it's peripheral, really, to tackling the major issue.

  2. I think that probably requires a more complicated answer than I should give in a comment box, Adam. The Montreal Protocol is a living example that this can happen, but of course replacing carbon as fuel is a two-orders-of-magnitude (at a guess) larger problem than replacing all air conditioners and other uses of CFCs in the world. For now I'll just write that "the embedded self-interest of capital" and "the market status quo" are two different things. There are individual market actors who want to preserve their market share -- but the self-interest of capital as a whole is in increased demand, the kind of demand you'd get if every society had to replace its infrastructure.

    It may sound like "it will rock the financial boat too much to replace all of our cars", and indeed, with crony capitalists in charge, that has been taken to be true. But really all that that means is that everyone who has a car is going to be buying a new car somewhat sooner than they might have otherwise done.

  3. Hello Rich. Found your blog via mt. Just wanted to take this opportunity to acknowledge that when I think back upon the many vigorous exchanges we had in the early to mid 1990's, you were right more often than I (I'd say that subsequent history makes the score about 80:20).

    Best Regards,
    Robert P. (radicalized)

  4. Wow, Robert, thanks. That means quite a bit -- not being right (I don't remember too well what I was supposedly right about), but that someone else remembers those times as being more than just flames.

    As far as I can remember, things are going pretty much I as expected them to with one major exception -- I expected us to be where we are now in 2000. If not for Florida and the U.S. Supreme Court, we would have been. Those eight years have been lost to a sort of alternate reality.

    The one thing that I think I did get right was the radicalization. Back then, I was closer to community organizing -- as you can probably tell from this blog, I'm more of a technical support person now -- and I could tell that everyone who was basically rational was going to end up radicalized to some extent by the time this was over.