Shyama Venkateswar Distinguished Lecturer, Hunter College and Director, Public Policy Program, Roosevelt House

Posted on October 3, 2014 · Posted in Frank Friday, Roosevelt House

Climate change and its impact has been headline news for several weeks now. On September 21st, anywhere between 311,000 to 400,000 people made their way through Manhattan to beats of drums and blaring horns as part of the People’s Climate March. The event, timed to coincide with the opening of the UN Summit on Climate Change the following week, drew thousands of ordinary people, advocacy groups, politicians and others to draw attention to the urgent issue of global warming and the lack of consensus among world leaders on a plan of action on how to mitigate and adapt – limit emissions and prepare for extreme weather patterns linked to climate change.

World leaders at the UN Climate Change Summit, who were in New York for the 69th annual session of the United Nations General Assembly, made new commitments to address carbon pollution and cutting their reliance on fossil fuels in advance of a possible global climate treaty to be negotiated in Paris in 2015. Some significant points include:

  • The New York Declaration on Forests, supported by governments, corporations, indigenous groups and NGOs, aims to halve the loss of natural forests globally by 2030
  • The world’s largest meat and agricultural retailers committed to reduce emissions and assist 500 million farmers
  • A group of institutional investors committed to disclosing the carbon footprint of at least $500 billion worth of investments
  • The creation of an 8,000 km-long African Clean Energy Corridor
  • Leaders of the oil and gas industry committed to reduce methane emissions by 2020 as well as HFCs in refrigeration

These are modest proposals, but at least it’s a start. Discussions at the global level continue to be whether new economic players like China and India can take concrete steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions and join other governments in a binding treaty. China’s heavy use of coal is worrisome; its poor air quality has led to children being kept indoors on a regular basis and generated street protests. The government has launched seven regional cap-and-trade plans aimed at cutting emissions from coal plants and providing an incentive basis to industry to reduce their reliance on dirty sources of energy. India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has initiated a “Make in India” campaign to draw foreign investment for essential infrastructure projects, but is resistant to making commitments to cut back on coal use. In fact, in the few months that the Indian prime minister has been in office, he has sent strong signals that he will review current laws protecting natural resources and wildlife as well as moved to block Greenpeace India’s financing, which the High Court in Delhi recently overruled.

Climate change proposals are not without its critics. Within the United States, conservatives oppose President Obama’s calls for a carbon tax that will have to be shouldered by industries. In 2010, Obama attempted to push through a national cap-and-trade bill through Congress which was vigorously resisted and defeated by the Republicans. However, using his executive authority to by-pass political gridlock in Washington and Congress’s inability to pass legislation, the President, earlier this summer, issued new regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency that requires states to set their own targets in cutting emissions. However, some states have already taken initiative to develop cap-and-trade programs, while a few, including California, Massachusetts and Vermont have joined the World Bank declaration to pass laws that would make industries financially liable for their emissions.

Refuting widely-held claims in the US that policies to combat climate change would be costly to individual taxpayers and corporations, a new report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate finds that initiatives to curb carbon pollution would actually result in financial gain when the amounts that would anyway be spent on upgrades to essential infrastructure and secondary benefits like better health outcomes were factored in.  Almost $90 trillion is expected to be spent on new infrastructure around the world over the next 15 years; the report recommends that much of that investment could be redirected towards low-emission alternatives that would make cities, agriculture and energy much greener than current standards.

Scientific evidence, notwithstanding areas of uncertainty in the field, systematically points to sources of greenhouse gases and the role they will play in serious weather-related disasters all over the world, including hurricanes, droughts, heat waves and floods. Extreme weather patterns impact agricultural productivity and food security, water quality, public health, damages infrastructure and affects fragile ecosystems and biodiversity. Yet, in a survey, only 40 percent of Americans expressed that climate change posed a problem to their country compared to 85 percent of Koreans, 56 percent of Germans and 48 percent of the British. Americans were more worried about financial instability, Islamic extremism and nuclear weapons than environmental issues.

Strong leadership is needed now to bring about a global climate treaty by the end of 2015. Countries have to show concrete plans to cut fossil fuel pollution after 2020 and how the government plans to enforce regulations. The United States, the world’s largest economy, along with its top ten trading partners have a role to play: to be responsible stewards of a global environment that badly needs protection.

The writing and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute or Hunter College.