The summer G8 meeting is over, and the press is reporting that leaders were unable to reach agreement on climate change. For example:
- Reuters: “G8 leaders failed to persuade India and China to join a push to cut greenhouse emissions by 50 percent by 2050,” and “a G8 deal to reduce its greenhouse gas emission by 80 percent by 2050 was thrown into doubt within hours of being announced.”
- Wall Street Journal: “The world’s richest and its largest developing economies made a little progress in bridging the gaps that divide them Thursday, agreeing on the ultimate goal for climate change negotiations, and a relaunch of stop-start trade talks that have dragged on for eight years.”
- New York Times: “The world’s biggest developing nations, led by China and India, refused Wednesday to commit to specific goals for slashing heat-trapping gases by 2050, undercutting the drive to build a global consensus by the end of this year to reverse the threat of climate change.”
However, the G8 leaders were able to reach an agreement that scientists are in charge of climate change policy-making and that the benefits of mitigation far outweigh the costs.
In the Communique, here’s the crucial sentence about science:
We recognise the broad scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2°C. (61)
Words like “ought” are not scientific; they are expressions of values and policy preferences about which science is silent. Depending on the tastes and preferences of policy makers, science can inform decision-making to a lesser or greater degree. But science neither prescribes nor proscribes values. When policy makers use language such as this, they are implicitly delegating to scientists the authority to make policy decisions. When this happens, the policy outcome depends entirely on which scientists are selected to opine and the values these individuals hold, not on anything related to science.
Here’s the crucial sentence about economics:
The costs of inaction far outweigh the costs of moving towards low-carbon societies. (65)
This sentence conveys both positive and normative content. On the positive side, the sentence states without equivocation that the benefits of moving toward a global low-carbon economy exceed the costs. Note that the sentence speaks only about the process, not the end state. That is, the sentence does not say that the costs of inaction fsr outweigh the costs of actually achieving a global low-carbon economy.
The analytic basis for this claim is elusive for many reasons, not least of which is the difficulty interpreting it in a tangible way. Benefit-cost analyses performed to date have shown that net social benefits of mitigation depend on a host of program design elements, the choice of discount rate, and assumptions regarding the participation of all major greenhouse gas emitters (including Russia, China and India). Even then, benefits and costs are distributed highly unevenly.
On the normative side, the sentence implies that decisions concerning climate change ought to be based on benefit-cost analysis.
This is intriguing because benefit-cost analysis has not been popular among climate change activists. Thus, it cannot be discerned whether this normative statement derives from conviction or convenience. The usual test for conviction arises when benefit-cost analysis yields a result contrary to one’s prior interests. If the analysis is discarded, convenience is revealed to be the motivation.
There is ample evidence outside the Communique suggesting that the text should not be read as closely as we’ve just done. For example, the leaders of Canada, Russia, China and India all made statements indicating that little, if any, change from the status quo is expected.:
- Canada: “Less than 24 hours after Prime Minister Stephen Harper praised the G8 for its latest climate-change targets, his environment minister said those targets are “aspirational” and that Canada will not meet them.”
- Russia: “During the summit, the G8 industrialised nations and the nine most important emerging powers agreed that developed countries as a whole should cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent but the declaration was promptly undermined when Russia said such a target was unattainable and unacceptable.”
- China and India: “[H]opes of agreeing ambitious goals have faded after China and India rejected demands to halve the emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050.”
These nations have aligned but opposite interests. Climate change likely benefits Canada and Russia, so they have little incentive to make any significant effort to mitigate it. China and India may experience net costs from climate change, but the costs of mitigation are likely higher. These nations apparently do not agree that “[t]he costs of inaction far outweigh the costs of moving towards low-carbon societies.”
G-8 Communique Excerpts:
“RESPONSIBLE LEADERSHIP FOR A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
61. Science clearly shows that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions – mainly produced by the use of fossil fuels – are provoking dangerous climate change, putting at risk not only the environment and ecosystem services but the very basis of our present and future prosperity. The costs of inaction far outweigh the costs of moving towards low-carbon societies. At the same time, stable and secure energy availability is indispensable for social and economic development; it is essential to ensure global energy security and energy access in developing countries, particularly the most vulnerable. Immediate and resolute action is needed by all countries to build on existing and new technologies and to design and deliver innovative economic, environmental and energy policies.
65. We reaffirm the importance of the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and notably of its Fourth Assessment Report, which constitutes the most comprehensive assessment of the science. We recognise the broad scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2°C. Because this global challenge can only be met by a global response, we reiterate our willingness to share with all countries the goal of achieving at least a 50% reduction of global emissions by 2050, recognising that this implies that global emissions need to peak as soon as possible and decline thereafter. As part of this, we also support a goal of developed countries reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in aggregate by 80% or more by 2050 compared to 1990 or more recent years. Consistent with this ambitious long-term objective, we will undertake robust aggregate and individual mid-term reductions, taking into account that baselines may vary and that efforts need to be comparable. Similarly, major emerging economies need to undertake quantifiable actions to collectively reduce emissions significantly below business-as-usual by a specified year.