The recent publication of the Fourth National Climate Assessment is being hailed as a potent rebuke to President Trump for his do-nothing approach to climate change. Meanwhile, another president is learning that perhaps the only thing worse than doing nothing about climate, politically speaking, is doing something about it.
Emmanuel Macron’s government was forced this week to suspend a planned 6.5-cent-per-liter tax increase on diesel and 2.9 cents on gasoline — collected for the purpose of speeding France’s transition to renewables — after weeks of protests and violent rioting throughout the country. French consumers already pay more than $6 for a gallon of gas, compared to a current national average of $2.44 in the U.S.
That’s in a country where unemployment is 9.1 percent, the median monthly disposable income is $1,930, and economic growth has lagged for decades. “To the protesters,” wrote Adam Nossiter, The Times’s correspondent in Paris, “Mr. Macron is concerned about the end of the world, while they are worried about the end of the month.”
So much then for the belief that a cabal of know-nothing pundits and greedy oil barons are the main political obstacle to climate action. President Obama rejected a gas-tax hike in 2009, when Democrats controlled Congress, but not because the Koch brothers were bending his ear. In France, the protesting “Yellow Vests” aren’t particularly right-wing. They’re just rightly fed-up, and 84 percent of the French support them.
So much, also, for the fantasy that our main climate challenge is that nobody in power has the spine to do something about it. The real problem is that so far most of those somethings haven’t worked, or won’t work, or won’t work anytime soon, or come at too exorbitant a price.
Before accusing the so-called do-nothings of being good-for-nothings, shouldn’t the self-declared do-somethings first propose something serious to do?
Consider the list of somethings.
The Kyoto Protocol? In 1997, the U.S. Senate, including John Kerry and Ted Kennedy, voted 95-0 against becoming a signatory. Cap-and-trade? In 2005 the European Union launched the world’s most ambitious carbon-trading program to much fanfare: It has been beset by corruption and mismanagement.
Biofuels? They turned out to be an epic environmental and economic disaster, never mind that so-called climate hawks like Nancy Pelosi backed them for years. Massive government subsidies for wind and solar power? No country has invested more than Germany — an estimated $580 billion by 2025 — yet it will still miss its 2020 carbon emissions goals while energy prices have soared.
The Paris Climate Accord? The website Climateactiontracker.org finds that every nation it tracks save for Morocco and Gambia is falling short of its Paris commitments. Reducing the role of coal in energy markets? In India and China, which account for more than one-third of the world’s population, things are moving in precisely the opposite direction.
Carbon sequestration? Maybe, but it will likely be decades before the technology is likely to be widely adopted. Long-term battery storage? This is the holy grail of renewable energy because it would solve the intermittency problem of wind and solar power. But like the holy grail, it’s notoriously dangerous to those in its quest, with companies that pursue it having a bad habit of going bankrupt.
What might work on a scale and time frame likely to make a difference for the climate? Well, nuclear power. The technology is mature, efficient, carbon-free, and, compared to other sources, remarkably safe.
Which brings me back to France. For years, the French had an advantage when it came to climate change, since they get about 75 percent of their electricity from nuclear power. In 2015 they passed a law to cut it to 50 percent. Two years later, they decided to phase out all oil and gas exploration by 2040, never mind that the natural-gas boom has been essential to America’s transition away from coal.
This is not a climate-change policy. It’s a politics of gestures, destined to achieve the opposite of what it intends — at the expense of the people who can least afford it.
None of this is to say that the world should give up. Beyond nuclear power, we need to be placing medium-sized bets on potentially transformative technologies not funded by regressive taxes or industrial subsidies, and not dependent on future breakthroughs that might still be decades off, if they happen at all. Let thousands of climate-startups bloom — and let markets, not governments, figure out which ones work.
But a long history of climate policy failures might also cause climate activists and the politicians they support to be more humble about their convictions, more sensitive to the human effects of their policy, and more willing to listen to criticism.
To have a diagnosis is not to have a cure, and bad cures can be worse than the disease. Those who think otherwise are also living in denial.
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