This is a poor argument, mostly. Its natural conclusion is that the United States — the world’s leading power, the country that Republicans constantly remind us is indispensable to world order — should do little or nothing in the face of the greatest environmental threat that human society has ever faced. It doesn’t consider the risks of not trying to fight climate change. It doesn’t recognize the fact that the United States is not acting alone; if anything, the Europeans did that for years as we irresponsibly sat by. And it exaggerates the economic costs of clamping down on carbon dioxide emissions.
But there’s still a nugget of wisdom buried in all the nonsense: As world negotiators meet in Paris later this year to construct a global emissions-cutting pact, they must recognize that countries will have incentives to lie and cheat the system, and they must agree on mechanisms to expose emissions-cutting fraud and other types of climate deceit.
A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change (h/t Politico) underscores this crucial point. Swedish researchers found that people in Russia and Ukraine took wanton advantage of a poorly implemented European emissions program. Some got valuable credits for doing things they would have done anyway. Chemical factories ramped up their greenhouse emissions only to get credit for cutting them later. Local overseers could not or did not stop this corruption. The result was higher greenhouse gas emissions from one emissions-cutting program.
Many of the details of this emissions gaming are unique to the system the Europeans set up. But the underlying lesson is a global one: You can’t just assume that various national and subnational officials will comply with their commitments in good faith. The logical reaction is not to throw up our hands and continue changing the atmosphere’s chemistry, regardless of the consequences. The right reaction is to make sure international carbon commitments and policies are believable and, in some way, verifiable.
This will not be easy. The United States and Europeans will probably push hard for some kind of international emissions monitoring, review and verification at the Paris climate talks. But repressive regimes that see transparency as a threat to the state will resist, wrapping themselves in the principle of national sovereignty. At the least, Western powers should use any international climate funding they might promise as leverage. Accountability can’t be a side issue in Paris; it must be woven into the fabric of the whole deal.