Playing Kick the Can

By Keith Kloor | December 12, 2011 1:31 pm

So you’ve probably heard there was some sort of climate agreement reached this past weekend. The spin afterwards was impressive and misleading. (The media’s collective interpretation was mostly perplexing.) Here’s my modest attempt at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media at untangling what went down and what it means for the bigger picture.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, climate politics
  • harrywr2

    I’ll give my simple layman’s recap.

    The Europeans need a mechanism by which to achieve ‘energy security’ without actually calling it ‘energy security’. Their ‘left leaning populations’ don’t have a problem with being dependent on ‘Mother Russia’ for energy.
    The Asian’s can’t find the cheap coal they would like to burn if they could, so a bit of financial help from ‘rich countries’ finding alternatives to ‘expensive’ coal is something they are quite interested in. Technology transfers welcome. I would note Bill Gates was in China last week hawking a ‘traveling wave nuclear reactor’.
    The US doesn’t have a dog in this fight because the Senate will never ratify any meaningful treaty anyway.

  • Jarmo

    Year by year it more obvious that the whole process and its cornerstone, the Kyoto Protocol, are corrupt. By this I do not only mean the fake carbon credit schemes, bribery and creative carbon accounting; the scheme itself is one giant loophole. By allowing developing countries to increase emissions without check, European and US emission cuts have resulted a huge increase of emissions in Asia.

    Developing countries outnumber developed countries population-wise 5-1. Encouraging them to build fossil fuel based infrastructure will turn out to be a mistake.

  • Ed Forbes

    Loved your link at Yale to the Guardian for “recent warnings”, photo shopped image and all.
    How many “five years until doom” have we now heard since the 1990’s?
    Guardian: “World headed for irreversible climate change in five years, IEA warns-If fossil fuel infrastructure is not rapidly changed, the world will ‘lose for ever’ the chance to avoid dangerous climate change”

  • EdG

    Keith. Just posted this on your Yale site:

    The Guardian as an example? Here’s one I feel was much closer to the mark:
    “Of course, at the 28th hour of extended play they had to announce something “landmark” and thus they did. All you need to know about their success is written in the following paragraph:
    “The deal doesn’t explicitly compel any nation to take on emissions targets, although most emerging economies have volunteered to curb the growth of their emissions.”
    That’s the good news. The bad news is they still got our money:
    Sunday’s deal also set up the bodies that will collect, govern and distribute tens of billions of dollars a year…
    Environmentalists criticized the package ““ as did many developing countries in the debate ““ for failing to address what they called the most urgent issue, to move faster and deeper in cutting carbon emissions.
    “The good news is we avoided a train wreck,” said Alden Meyer… “The bad news is that we did very little here to affect the emissions curve.”
    But then it was never about emissions, was it?”

  • Anteros

    I am extremely surprised most people aren’t hailing Durban as a catastrophe. From the point of view of curbing carbon emissions it was considerably worse than doing nothing. All the main emitters have the best part of a decade of breathing space, and the whole playing field will look different in 2020.

    Remember too that Kyoto didn’t actually reduce, curb, or otherwise make lower, emissions of carbon dioxide – they have risen by more than 50% since the reference year of 1990. That will be more like 100% by 2020 and the impact of Kyoto 2 will surely be similar to the first fiasco.

    So, anybody convinced that emissions must peak in the next 5 years should be throwing their hands up in horror.

    I still believe that focusing so closely on emissions is to misunderstand the problem. If fossil fuels aren’t , at some point, clearly left in the ground unused, whatever happens to emissions is just an illusion.

    If you want to reduce the final temperature rise by just one tenth of a degree, you’ll need to be able to identify more than 200 billion barrels of oil untouched. How is that ambition looking after 20 years of trying? Who is being fooled the most?

  • Ed Forbes

    Something to help with the problem of too little plant food in the envo :-)
    Electronic Ignition Generators, Mid & High Altitude (GEN-2eLP6500) CO2 Generators; Carbon Dioxide (CO2: ) is one of the easiest ways to accelerate plant growth. Plants grown with supplemental CO2 can produce up to 35% more flowers or fruit. A propane or natural gas CO2 generator is the most cost effective way to add CO2 to your environment. Many greenhouses use CO2 generators to boost CO2 levels safely and economically. C.A.P. has developed some of the safest and most reliable CO2 Generators. They are capable of producing between 3 and 26 cubic feet of CO2 per hour. $339.95

  • harrywr2

    So, anybody convinced that emissions must peak in the next 5 years should be throwing their hands up in horror
    In the coming XII Plan period (2012-17), the projected coal deficit is 200 million tonnes and the sector to suffer the most will be power generation.
    There is no shortage of coal analysts talking about a peak in the next 3 years. Why do we need a treaty to enforce the reality of rising coal extraction costs?

  • Jack Hughes

    No I really mean it this time.

    Next year I’m going to have a conference where I finally agree a roadmap for building a framework to quit smoking.

    And it’s gonna be a legal outcome. Praise be. 

  • Anteros


    Most of the article you linked to concerns itself with domestic Indian issues. I don’t believe a world shortage of coal is going to be a problem in the next century – at the earliest. There is a whole load more coal than there is oil or gas – even including the new frackable deposits.

    Worriers will say that if we get close to using half of the remaining deposits of fossil fuels, then we’re doomed. Well, they’re right in the sense that it is an enormous amount of Co2, but by the same token, to deliberately not use more than half of it is an extraordinary ambition – and one that hasn’t seen the slightest progress in 20 years.

    Hence my view that Durban was a terrible result for those that are most concerned about rising Co2 emissions – nothing at all was done to halt that rise. In fact, the decisions merely made it easier over the next decade for the rise in emissions to continue unabated. Who would be willing to bet that Co2 emissions will return to 1990 levels in their lifetime – or even in the lifetime of their children?

  • Ed Forbes

    Some good has came out of Durban

    Canada will pull out of the Kyoto protocol on climate change
    [“As we’ve said, Kyoto for Canada is in the past … We are invoking our legal right to formally withdraw from Kyoto,” Kent told reporters after returning from talks in Durban, South Africa, on extending the protocol.
     He gave no details on when exactly Ottawa would pull out, but said Canada would be subject to enormous financial penalties under the terms of the treaty unless it withdrew. ]

  • hunter

    Rather than kick the can, I think a more accurate metaphor would be to see that AGW is now in Zombie mode, a walking dead movement.

  • huxley

    The AGW movement peaked with Copenhagen 2009, when even Obama, still flush with the strength of his messianic 2008 victory and majorities in both houses of Congress, appeared and couldn’t push through a serious deal.

    If it couldn’t be done in 2009 it’s not going to be done in 2011 or 2012 or for some time hence.

    In the meantime these conferences will come and go, along with the big climate debates, but nothing effective at curbing carbon emissions will happen. Putting a smiley-face on is the best the media can do. Kudos to Keith for noticing.

    I don’t know what the AGW movement can do, aside from hope that the climate worsens.

    My recommendation would be to retrench and rethink their work, with any eye to learning from their mistakes, then make a big push in another five years or so, when the current economic chaos has settled down.

  • Paul Kelly

    I repeat. It is time for those who wish to follow the science to accept the proven by repeated observation fact: that the top down politically based approach is a dead end. Let’s have no more talk of it. Let’s stop thinking about what someone else might do tomorrow, and start thinking about what we should be doing today.

  • OPatrick

    Paul Kelly, I still don’t get your argument for why it has to be one, not the other. I strongly agree with many of your suggestions for action from the bottom up, but I don’t see why this has to exclude a simultaneous top-down approach.

    Any chance of motivating action from the bottom up must involve a significant shift in understanding from individuals involved. In the scale of this understanding is it really so difficult to comprehend that global political action doesn’t mean we don’t need to take personal responsibility too?

  • jeffn

    #14- that’s an interesting point. I would argue that global political action can help direct people on what action to take, but is too often mistaken for “action” in its own right.
    For example, a top-down/bottom-up “success” story would be the twisty light bulbs. Greens wanted them mandated, I bought them because all the hoo-ha made me notice that they could save me money, and today they are in all my lamps regardless of what “global political action” actually happens on the issue of light bulbs.
    What happened in Durban is an example of how the process fails. The “movement” allows itself to be hijacked by partisans (“climate justice” = wealth redistribution) and/or lets the nutters monopolize  the debate, producing a statement of “action” that nobody will take- (stop all fossil fuel use, but no new nuclear plants!).
    Nuts and partisans won’t get you a viable movement- just a never ending series of laughable conferences. Viable, reasonable ideas will- regardless of what your belief is regarding AGW.

  • Alexander Harvey

    The hackneyed rebuff:

    “If you’re so smart why aren’t you rich?”

    is well known, but another:

    “If its so green, why isn’t it cheap?”

    seems seldom asked but may have some significance in the debate about who gets to burn what as it features in the COP process.

    At the level of an indiviual’s purchases, calculating the greener option is fraught. Efforts are sometimes made to calculate the sustainability of the product, from prime-mover, through production, distribution and consumption, such analysis favours certain “green” products.

    I don’t see so much attention given to the other flow, the money that flows from the purchaser into the money supply chain.

    From that alternative perspective, cheap and green, may be joined at the hip. Put simply, what is the point of a greener purchase if the additional expense boards a jet to the Maldives, or Durban for that matter.

    It isn’t that simple, buying cheaper goods produced by people who may be living green livestyles due to their inability to afford otherwise seems green until they deposit their savings into a bank thereby encouraging not only essential investment but a cascade of consumption in far away lands.

    I don’t believe in panaceas but it is a little obvious to suggest that attempts to connect green and cheap in an honest way, is one thread that will drive green purchasing and green production.

    The notion of a green subsidy is an apparent oxymoron, if that were the end of the argument. Providing it is an intention to couple green and cheap in a meaningful timeframe it is prudent. The subsidy itself has the ability to promote a variety of behaviours many anything but green.

    If I sound like a libertarian, it is because I am a green one, yet largely non-ideological. I do not believe in capitalism any more than I believe in a hammer. Neither having merit in their existence beyond their current utility.

    I am putting questions. To the tradional greens I query just how green their practices are. To the laissez faire, I put a challenge not to the underpinnings, but to the fulfilment of the tenet of freedom and openness in the markets for goods and information, to allow those that so wish, to attempt green consumption via existing trading mechanisms or by new ones, and to signal by their purchases which sort of investments they wish to see.

    For myself, I really do not know how green I am, which pains me, I suspect much less green than most, if that includes all the seven billion, but more green than most if limited to my peers. Just how green I am, or my purchases are, is mute. I think that needs fixing. Similarly how green China is compared to say the UK, the USA or Kazakstan is not obvious in a world where on can export the deleterious effects of ones consumption.

    This is in the theme of the “middle ground”.


  • OPatrick

    Alex, I have to confess I’m struggling to understand all the points you are making here.

    “The notion of a green subsidy is an apparent oxymoron, if that were the end of the argument. Providing it is an intention to couple green and cheap in a meaningful timeframe it is prudent.” 

    This seems wrong to me. Subsidies are about making something competetive, not cheap. If a green option is as cheap as the alternatives then it won’t need a subsidy (though there may still be a place for legislation to promote behaviour change).

    The idea that savings from actions deemed green, such as reducing petrol consumption, can be counter-productive when the savings are spent on even more environmentally destructive activities is well trodden.

    Your final statement has confused me:

    This is in the theme of the “middle ground”.

    What is? I don’t see anything you’ve written that isn’t discussed by anyone interested in taking action (though as I said I’m not fully clear about all that you’ve written, so I may have missed someting). Are you saying this (whatever it is) is the primary theme of the “middle ground”, whilst those further towards the ‘activist’, for want of a better term, end have other themes as well?

  • Alexander Harvey

    Hi OPatrick,

    I will respond after thinking about it some more. But for now, the nebulous “middle ground” as I described it preciously, is where questions that are challenging to both polar positions come from. In this case, will one side consider whether the markets are suffering from insufficient information and opportunity; and would the other side put their money where their sentiment is and pay a supplement through their purchases, to fund investment  in greener products, if they could identify that benefit in their individual purchases. There will be more when I have thought on it and hopefully amble opportunity to respond afterwards


  • Paul Kelly

    Time, effort and money are limited. I’ve got two vehicles I can take to Silar City. One vehicle, which would really be sweet, is little more than a concept. But as soon as we get the chassis, the motor, the trans and the body and the wheels and all that, we’ll be rarin’ to go. The good news is the designers met last week and agreed to start talking about a framework. The other vehicle only needs a willing driver.

    Any time, effort or money spent on the first vehicle not only doesn’t get me to my destination, it actually delays my getting there at all. So yes, it is either/or. The week in Durban, a huge spending of time, effort and money, is illustrative. What a waste. Emissions prevented – zero. Carbon footprint – huge. Now apply that same time, effort and money to bottom up.

    “Any chance of motivating action from the bottom up must involve a significant shift in understanding from individuals involved.”
    You don’t motivate bottom up action. You initiate and participate in it. The only shift in understanding is that one door remains closed and another door is open.

    “In the scale of this understanding is it really so difficult to comprehend that global political action doesn’t mean we don’t need to take personal responsibility too?”
    Bottom up is about so much more than personal responsibility.


    Laissez faire is the fulfilment of the tenet of freedom and openness in the markets for goods and information. It not just allows, it also encourages those that so wish to buy green via existing trading mechanisms or by new ones. And yes, consumers are the ultimate drivers of markets who signal by their purchases which sort of investments they wish to see.


  • OPatrick

    Paul, the time and effort demanded by the two approaches are required from different groups, I don’t see they overlap much. As to money the international negotiations cost virtually nothing, relatively speaking (and their carbon footprint is relatively insignificant too).

    I didn’t mean that the bottom up approach was only about taking personal responsibility, I was interpreting you as suggesting that the push for co-ordinating bottom-up action was being impeded because people were being distracted by international negotiations and discouraged from taking personal action. Is this part of your argument?

    I’m sure you’ve set it out in detail elsewhere, but could you give a brief outline of what you see bottom-up action looking like – I’d like to explore how this clashes with a simultaneous top-down approach.

  • Paul Kelly


    Yes, I think that people are distracted and discouraged. Energy transformation involves countless individual deployments of efficiencies and technologies over time. There are really only two groups, those who desire energy transformation and those who don’t.

    The working structure of bottom up is already in place. It includes every voluntary act of energy transformation. I’ll get into this more tomorrow.


  • OPatrick

    Paul, what about, for example, those who desire a reduction in deforestation, or even an effort to reforest? Do they overlap completely with the group who want energy transformation?

  • Alexander Harvey

    OPatrick #17:

    Re Subsidies:

    I hoped to make the point that a temporary subsidy for a new technology with potential to be cheap, can be a good thing. I do not think that permanent subsidies are necessarily compatible with a green outcome, it depends on things difficult to ponder.

    If a temporary subsidy can push a technology over an initial price bump to the road of cheapness that is brilliant. If it fails to do so then perhaps the technology is not the correct one.

    Re Savings:

    We may be talking about different meanings.

    I agree that what is saved in one area and then spent elsewhere is well trodden at least amongst those most interested in this debate.

    I am not sure that this is as appreciated when the savings are not spent but merely saved, as in a bank. Putting money in a bank has the potential to generate much consumption. Once asked on the subject of green domestic heating I concluded that it would be best to take ones cash out of the bank and burn it. Ridiculous but, meant to illustrate just how difficult it is to make the greenest purchase.

    Sorry for the delay in replying.


  • Alexander Harvey

    Paul Kelly #19,

    Yes, but how many consumers are in a position to exhibit a preference over how their electricity is produced at the time of purchase. If they cannot then the market is not sufficiently open for the mechanism to function. This open condition sort of exists in the UK, (scam alert) and some people do indeed elect to pay for a more expensive option based on preference.


  • OPatrick

    Alex, I think I agree with you entirely on the point of subsidies. I wonder what your thoughts are on taxes though – are you happy for a permanent, and possibly rising, carbon tax to be applied to pollluting technologies?

    An interesting point on the potential for savings to stimulate consumption. Do you trust the ability of green-investment options, for example Triodos, to ensure that money is not stimulating further damaging consumption? Of course for most people this isn’t a consideration and once again we are faced with the issue that behaviour change that isn’t made for environmental reasons is not sustainable. We can’t con people into taking action to address anthropogenic climate change and wider sustainability issues, we need them to understand the threats and direct their behaviour accordingly. Even then, getting these choices right is a difficult thing to do and it would be helpful if much more of the energy in the debate could be directed towards this.

    (Perhaps that final sentence echoes something of what Paul Kelly is saying.)

  • Alexander Harvey


    Re Taxes:

    My thinking is similar on this as on subsidies, government can send signals, to create a mood, a shift, a sentiment. Passing enabling legislation, and producing a credible threat of increasing taxation is probably a bright idea. Actually carrying out a policy to squeeze carbon out of the economy by coupling taxation to targets requires a level of submissiveness in the people that hopefully doesn’t exist.

    Its best hope is that after a comparatively short time, the natural price for fossil fuels renders the tax unnecessary. It is my view that people in countries where fuel has not typically been obviously subsidised or had its price controlled, are more tolerant of real price rises, which they can do little about, than artificial price manipulation via taxation, which they can do something about. I think that prelonged and rising taxation will be too brittle a policy to survive.

    Signaling that there is no long term future in say coal fired power generation could be useful and taxation could have a role if one thinks it really has no long term future. As I understand it, gas, another carbon fuel and hence liable to the same tax, does have a future at least as long as the plants economic investment cycle, say 30-40 years, as it is required to make any sense of wind, solar, nuclear which are either too intermittent or too constant. AFAIAA no one currently has a solution that eliminates gas from the role of matching supply to demand. Here I am referring largely to the UK which actually has some sort of intention towards mitigation and gas is in there for decades to come.

    I can see the coupling between taxation and consumption but much of the consumption is not really discretionary. The coupling to supply is I think weak as they can pass the tax on to the consumer, they don’t have to change anything. If they could offset sensible non-coal investment against tax the coupling would be stronger and the policy less punishing. A lot turns on whether CCS would be preferred in a high taxation regime. If this is what those advocating taxation believe, then I think they will be proved wrong as CCS is inherently expensive and wasteful of fuel, I really doubt that people will accept the necessary level of taxation.

    Despite all this I am still optimistic providing we can get over what I perceive as a mental block. I will term this front end loading.

    This is the notion that we can forge a full proof poilicy that guarantees decarbonisation. That we can adopt it now and that the current mechanisms will carry it forward. It is my belief that any attempt to tie policy to a current view of the mechanisms fails as the mechanisms adapt in ways that can not be anticipated. As soon as it is realised that a policy relies on some long term linkage to market mechanisms, every conceivable way of taking advantage of that linkage will be exploited. This is I think equivalent to Goodhart’s Law.

    It is my opinion that the popular view of the COP process is constipated by the notion of front end loading, that we can really make a treaty that will guarantee that a specific target will be met. Hopefully the governments do not believe this but do see it as a forum for sending signals and capitalising on strong feelings, hopes and desires that are unfortunately being dashed on the rocks of reality.

    I will add that the lack of a very important feedback seems to be getting ignored. AFAIK whatever policies are adopted we may have no indication as to whether they are working in terms of mitigation for several decades. For sure we can measure the atmospheric concentrations but knowing if the measures are on track to achieve the goals may be almost unknowable. Perhaps the most or rather the worst we can hope for is would be that they were clearly not working. The sentiment towards avoiding bad climate outcomes is I think strong and needs nurturing for decades to come. It may be the only thing capable of sustaining the project during a period were it is not bringing any tangible benefits in terms of the climate. I think that there are other benefits which may be able to tide us over.

    I have started to look at the Triodos website and I think there are some positives, in so far as they are concentrating effort into developing specific expertise in the field of operations and that they are listing projects that should be pushing on an open door, e.g. if you can’t make wind work on windy islands that are off-grid then it won’t work anywhere.

    I will look again to at those of your points I haven’t had sufficient time to consider.


  • Paul Kelly


    They overlap in a complimentary way, as do efforts to reduce black soot. Both are examples of bottom up activity already in place.

  • OPatrick

    Alex, I’d say people are tolerant of taxes, rather than submissive to them. This is clearly the case with tobacco and alcohol taxes, which are accepted with little complaint. It would certainly be preferable that the economic cost of fossil fuels alone be high enough to ensure that they fade out of use, but it seems unlikely this will happen soon enough to prevent continued large scale exploitation. A combination of targeted short to medium term subsidies and significant and/or rising long term carbon tax seems the most realistic solution to me.

    I think you are right in your hope that governments see COP as a forum for sending signals and I doubt anyone thinks it possible to agree on a treaty that will guarantee anything without good will behind it. But the long-term commitment of a treaty is more than symbolic and will be required to overcome, for example, the problem you outline of no immediate perceived benefits from the actions taken.

  • OPatrick

    Paul, I’d agree that there are many complementary overlapping concerns, but this is why I question your claim in #21, which seems to suggest that we can talk only about energy transformation and achieve the wider goals we are aiming for.

    I do like the bottom-up approach. I just don’t think it needs to be an exclusive one. 

  • Nullius in Verba

    “This is clearly the case with tobacco and alcohol taxes, which are accepted with little complaint.”
    Not where I live. I hear plenty of complaints – it’s grudgingly accepted by many because, well, what can you do about it? Protest? Lobby? Write to your elected representative? You’ll get written off as a stooge for the drinks/tobacco industry, and ignored.

    The result, as anyone could have predicted, is rampant smuggling, counterfeiting, and a huge market for organised crime. The media here don’t talk about it much, because it contradicts the health lobby’s message. I think the more affluent middle classes may be less likely to get involved in that sort of thing, but such taxes hit the poor especially badly.
    It’s a nasty business, but again one rooted in a mindset where people’s belief in their own virtue and their opponents’ depravity is set in concrete. Liberalism as a philosophy never fully caught on.

  • Paul Kelly


    It’s more a matter of emphasis than of exclusion. Bart is posting about the proper emphasis on short and long term forcings. Some of it applies here. It is not one or the other. It is both at the same time. It is about how each person who wants to do something about climate change and/or energy transformation, needs to decide how much time, effort, and money to spend on bottom up and top down. I, of course, recommend 90% or more should go to bottom up.

    Alex has pointed out a lack of proper market mechanisms. A market consists of a product, a buyer, a seller. We know regarding climate mitigation that the inability of individual consumers to effect a market with small purchases is a major impediment. There was an old slogan: What this country needs is a good 5 cent cigar. Today we need a good $10 unit of energy transformation.



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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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