Madrid Climate Conference Ends in Failure
Al Gore Talks—Donald Trump Vindicated
#TimeForAction was the slogan at this year’s Madrid climate conference that ended Sunday. #TimeForTalk would be more accurate. The talking was endless: more than 70,000 hours were spent failing to define a “market instrument,” something that was meant to have been decided at last year’s conference in Katowice, Poland. Even though the Madrid conference ran over into the weekend, making it the longest ever, the issue will be kicked into next year’s talks, in Glasgow, Scotland.
“I am disappointed,” United Nations secretary general António Guterres tweeted. He should be. Next year, countries are to submit their second set of five-year, nationally determined climate plans under the Paris Agreement. The Madrid conference was to have engendered a spirit of enhanced climate ambition, a kind of competition of climate virtuousness. All it could manage was a statement expressing “serious concern” about the widening gap between the participating parties’ collective efforts and the ambitious emissions trajectory required to keep the rise in global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius.
Talk doesn’t cut greenhouse-gas emissions. The UN Environment Programme describes the last ten years as a lost decade, in terms of curbing global emissions. “There has been no real change in the global emissions pathway in the last decade,” UNEP says. Global emissions have risen at an average of 1.5% a year over the last ten years, pausing in 2016 but resuming the upward trend in 2017. Emissions have now reached a new record, with no sign yet of a peak. The underlying driver is the strong economic growth of non-OECD economies, which have grown at more than 4.5% a year, compared with only 2% a year for OECD members.
“The summary findings are bleak,” UNEP says in its tenth anniversary emissions-gap report. Just to put the world on track to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, emissions would need to be 55% lower in 2030 than in 2018. “Unprecedented efforts are required to transform societies, economies, infrastructure and governance institutions,” one of the report’s authors said at a conference side event. “It’s frustrating,” said another. “The gap is growing.” To a third, drastic cuts in emissions require new values, new norms, and new lifestyles, all implying “a huge transformation of the whole of humanity.”
Asked what probability they’d ascribe to meeting the 1.5-degree target, one of the emissions-gap authors said that he preferred not to pose the question. If he answered it, people would conclude that the goal is impossible, and give up. Speaking two years before the Paris climate conference, Yvo de Boer, former executive secretary of the UN climate convention, was more candid. “The only way that a 2015 agreement can achieve a 2-degree goal is to shut down the whole global economy,” he said.
No climate conference is complete without Al Gore talking. Perhaps because he’s feeling some competitive pressure from Time’s Person of the Year, teenager Greta Thunberg, who arrived at the conference center with six armed UN security guards and nine additional security personnel, Gore’s performance was more histrionic than usual. He presented his standard fare about unprecedented wildfires, the North Pole melting in midwinter, the disappearing Greenland icecap causing Venice to flood, and so forth. Then Gore added a new climate catastrophe—Brexit. One million climate refugees had streamed into Europe, destabilizing its politics and leading to what he termed “this completely idiotic Brexit proposal.”
“We have the solutions,” Gore boomed. “They are cheaper than fossil fuels.” Wind and solar are crossing the line of grid parity, he insisted—there would be no stopping them. Eighty-eight percent of new generating capacity in Europe was renewable, he claimed, not mentioning that countries using the highest proportion of renewable energy also have the highest energy costs. Electric vehicles were superior to the internal-combustion engine, he said, calling for worldwide bans on future sales of petrol-driven cars. That’s an old Gore theme: nearly three decades ago, in Earth in the Balance, Gore described the internal-combustion engine as a deadlier threat to America than any military foe. Somehow, America has survived it, even with the SUV share of auto sales soaring from 27% to 48% in just nine years. The trend toward clean energy is unstoppable, Gore claimed, but we still need new policies to make it so. A contradiction? For sure.
Here Gore’s talk signals a major political shift. All movements need a figure against which to direct their ire. At previous climate conferences, especially since Donald Trump’s election, the United States served this function. At the last two climate conferences, protestors interrupted the presentations of the U.S. delegation. This year is different. The U.S. has been virtually invisible, and so has the anti-Americanism. Instead of protesting against a nonexistent American presence, youth activists stormed the conference main stage, shouting “we are unstoppable.”
In his remarks, Gore mentioned Trump only once, and then in neutral terms. Though Trump wants to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a new president can rejoin, with 30 days’ notice. But it didn’t matter who was in the White House anyway, Gore said: the trend toward a green economy would continue. Was Gore conceding the probability of Trump’s reelection? It sounded that way. Gore directed his vitriol instead at oil companies and fossil-fuel polluters. Like any bully, Gore, as the leading figure of the climate clerisy, understands that you don’t take on someone stronger than yourself and win. He tried and failed to win over the president; oil companies present a softer target.
Royal Dutch Shell, for example, has gone out of its way to endorse the goals of the Paris Agreement and achieving “net zero” by 2070—though that’s two decades too late for Gore. Whatever the nuance in Shell’s net carbon-footprint ambition, it won’t change an oil company from being an oil company, and it won’t protect an oil company from being attacked for net-zero targets that, globally, no responsible person believes are achievable. By contrast, the absence of anti-Americanism at Madrid vindicates the president’s decision to quit the Paris Agreement. Supping at the climate table comes with a cost. Donald Trump has decided that America doesn’t need to pay it—and the Madrid climate conference shows that he was right.
Rupert Darwall is a Senior Fellow at the RealClear Foundation.