"Hartwell Paper" Is the Anti-Kerry-Lieberman; Says Carbon Targets Don't Work

By Andrew Moseman | May 13, 2010 10:31 am

Planet earthYesterday Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman rolled out their new climate bill, the American Power Act. The 987-page piece of text was driven by what we’ve come to expect in climate legislation: Concrete targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions a certain percentage by a certain year. But, an international group of economists and environmental scientists are saying, that approach is doomed to failure, and this is the time to change.

The Hartwell Paper, a product of 14 different authors working since February, came out this week to coincide with the release of the climate bill. The assessment is blunt: Reaching agreements like the Kyoto Protocols to reduce carbon emissions has been the primary means of addressing climate change since the mid-1980s, and it hasn’t worked. With the high-profile flop that was the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, the authors argue this is the chance to drive a new course on climate policy, one not singularly focused on CO2.

The Hartwell authors don’t downplay the importance of CO2 as a greenhouse gas; rather, they point to the silliness of being so fixated on that one compound; the Earth’s climate, after all, is a terribly complex system:

That is frustrating for politicians. So policy makers frequently respond to wicked problems by declaring ‘war’ on them, to beat them into submission and then move on. Indeed, almost any ‘declaration of war’ that is metaphorical rather than literal is a reliable sign that the subject in question is ‘wicked’. So, we have the war on cancer, the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on terror and now the war on climate change.

As we noted last week at the 25th anniversary of the ozone hole’s discovery, the ozone problem was one of those with a direct solution that governments could pursue in such a prompt, bludgeoning way. Climate change, not so much. And the paper authors also criticize the closed-off nature of choosing climate strategies that led to such focus on CO2:

A distinctive characteristic of the climate change debate has been of scientists claiming with the authority of their position that their results dictated particular policies; of policy makers claiming that their preferred choices were dictated by science, and both acting as if ‘science’ and ‘policy’ were simply and rigidly linked as if it were a matter of escaping from the path of an oncoming tornado.

So, then, if rigid carbon targets are not the way to address climate change, what would the Hartwell authors recommend?

Their oblique approach is to aim instead for a world with accessible, secure low cost energy for all. The hope, intuition or strategy at play here is that since fossil fuels cannot deliver such a world, its achievement will, in itself, bring about decarbonisation on a massive scale. Following a path stressing clean energy as a development issue provides a more pleasant journey to the same objective [The Economist].

Compared to what we’ve gotten used to in international agreements, it’s a backward approach: Forget about cutting carbon emissions to an arbitrary level by subsidizing cleaner energy technology that’s on the shelf now. Instead, wholeheartedly fund research and development to reach new energy sources capable of actually competing with fossil fuel in the marketplace, and cut carbon out of the economy that way. Meanwhile, go after the low-hanging fruit like slowing deforestation and cutting black carbon.

In short, it’s an energy policy first with climate benefits on the back end, instead of a huge worldwide climate policy.

They argue that there is something wrong with a world in which carbon-dioxide levels are kept to 450 parts per million (a trajectory widely deemed compatible with a 2 degree [Celsius] cap on warming) but at the same time more than a billion of the poorest people are left without electricity, as in one much discussed scenario from the International Energy Agency [The Economist].

The Hartwell Paper’s talk of elevating human dignity is all well and good, but what about the final question: Can we really afford to wait for the world that its authors want?

Though the paper is not explicit on this, to accept that decarbonisation will require as-yet unavailable technologies to achieve deep penetration around the world is to accept that carbon-dioxide levels will get a lot higher than current policies want them to. Which might seem a good enough reason to reject the whole idea. Except that the current policies have not, as yet, made a very great deal of difference [The Economist].

Related Content:
80beats: Skip the Political Babbling: Here Is What the Kerry-Lieberman Climate Bill Says
80beats: Why the Ozone Hole Prompted Global Action—And Why Climate Change Hasn’t
DISCOVER: It’s Getting Hot in Here: The Big Battle Over Climate Science, interviews with Judith Curry & Michael Mann
DISCOVER: The State of the Climate—And of Climate Science

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • NewEnglandBob

    It sounds to me that the Hartwell Paper is no solution at all. It appears to be a lot of wishful thinking. Why not do both: reduce carbon emissions and encourage green energy.

  • ToneDeF

    I think this is a more reasonable approach. Though I do wish they would have given support the alternate energy source currently available at equivent cost to carbon fuels: Nuclear Power.

    As they point out, other alternate fuels and carbon targets hurt the worlds poor the most (and economies in general). Switching to nuclear would not be significantly different in cost and would be a good stop gap until other sources are developed and made efficient.

  • kirk

    Why didn’t you say this was just Roger Pielke Jr., 12 social studies teachers and some industry flack from a steel company? And that two industry groups paid for them to get together around a big polished desk and make some powerpoint slides.

  • Brian Too

    I don’t know, I think there is merit in this approach. Create a regime that results in a desirable outcome automatically.

    For instance, most of the world (China excepted) has “tackled” population growth by not tackling it. Instead they develop their economy, raise education, standards of living, health care. In such a world people automatically start having smaller families. You don’t have to create political problems by imposing heavy-handed controls on a sensitive matter.

    It’s a political minefield to suggest, even obliquely, that the developing world must slow or stop their progress towards a better life.

  • Ian

    Comparing birth rates and climate change is like comparing apples and steak.
    Also none is saying the poor shouldn’t have electricity, what we need is for Americans to stop using so much carbon, especially coal.

    The stimulus Bill had a good deal of money devoted for alternative energy research. The new energy bill that got stalled because of the BP oil spill included more subsidies for green energy as well as for Nuclear so pretty much everything the author is asking for is being done.
    Personally I think there should just be a small carbon tax that would eventually grow instead of cap and trade.

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