Don't Expect Results at a Climate Conference

Written by Jim DiPeso on Friday December 9, 2011

Another biennial international climate negotiation jamboree wraps up today.

What does the world have to show for it? Durban shouldn't turn out to be the belly flop that Copenhagen was in 2009. Other than that, not much. See you in two years and all that.

Even a few greens are wondering if trekking to these multi-national climate hoo-hahs is worth it. A Pace University blogger mused this week that one round-trip air ticket from the East Coast to Durban would result in greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 8 tons of carbon dioxide—equivalent, he noted with apologies for the pointy jab at his colleagues who made the trip—to cruising about for a year at the helm of a very large SUV.

To be sure, a high old time was had by those who are convinced that emissions of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere are not trapping heat in the atmosphere. Lord Christopher Monckton, holder of a peerage in the climate denial clown car, parachuted into Durban—literally—to tweak morose greens about how right he thinks he is.

Is there a better alternative to talk-a-thons that attempt to produce an intricate treaty addressing a very complex, long-range problem that 193 nations can agree on? Such agreements can only come about through a great deal of advance work and legwork to build domestic backing.

At this point, it looks a better bet for the time being to break the problem into more manageable chunks. The International Energy Agency has suggested acting now to reduce emissions, rather than wait for a treaty nirvana that might never arrive.

For the U.S., that means Congress finding some spare time away from political gamesmanship to work on energy legislation that reduces emissions, delivers important side benefits, and that members of both parties can support, such as the Portman-Shaheen industrial energy efficiency bill.

It also means finding middle ground on shale gas and its promise to displace a significant chunk of coal-fired power generation by tapping gas reserves with production methods that follow best practices for keeping contaminants away from drinking water. EPA's draft study indicating that hydrocarbons might have entered groundwater near a gas production zone in Wyoming is a cautionary sign that gas and water issues must be taken seriously.

And, it means Republicans pulling back from a flirtation with anti-science populism and Democrats taking calcium supplements to fortify their spinal columns.

Over time, we could even reach a point where most in the political class could agree on a common set of facts about climate change, the necessary foundation for an informed debate on what to do about it—such as a big-bang tax reform bargain that includes a carbon tax fully offset with payroll and/or income tax reductions.

We're not there now, and until we are, don’t expect much except talk from international climate gabfests.