Considering your expertise in both United States foreign policy and climate change, what do you see as the the greatest challenges for the US government in addressing climate change?
The challenge is what international relations theorists have long described as the two-level game: that is, one on the level of international diplomacy, and one on the level of domestic legislation and implementation. On the international level, the current administration has chosen to break from the treaty negotiation format, and has moved toward political deals format, which is less legally binding. On the domestic level, they’ve broken from the mindset that the US Congress was going to pass mandatory climate change budget legislations, and have used the authority under the president to implement regulations. Making that effort even more difficult is that they also need to implement state-level obligations to address climate change.
It is important for the US to work with the international community in order to move forward on the domestic level. If other countries, such as India and China, are to take on similar responsibilities in addressing climate change, it will be easier to negotiate with the other branches of the government and make transitions that will have heavy costs. On the other hand, the recent executive actions that have cut American emissions dramatically also demonstrate to the international community that the US is committed to climate action, playing out the two levels of the climate change challenge.
Do you think there is a conflict between energy security and efforts against climate change?
Energy security and efforts against climate change do not necessarily conflict. Countries can pursue energy in a way that regulates and reduces carbon emissions. The US can pursue energy in a way that is less dependent on foreign powers for oil and more focused on renewable energies, but that requires challenging political compromises, and is a path that the US has yet been willing to pursue. There is another path to energy security, which may or may not be carbon efficient. It has a heavy emphasis on exploration and development of natural gases; natural gas is a much less costly resource than oil and can reduce carbon emissions.
However, finding natural gas, if done in the wrong way, can cause a high amount of emission to directly enter the air and can greater contribute to overall greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, if the US becomes too reliant on natural gases, it could run into a situation where natural gases hinder the development of more carbon-efficient sources of energy and the transition to renewable energies— the US should perhaps view natural gas as a bridge toward a low-carbon economy, if it is to balance between energy security and efforts against climate change.
As the author of Inside Out India and China: Local Politics Go Global, you have done extensive on-the-ground research on India and China, and their increasing importance on the global stage. In your opinion, what is the influence of these two nations on international efforts to address climate change?
China and India are critical to long term efforts to address climate change. Right now, China and India are the world’s number one and number three greenhouse emitting countries, respectively. China and India have been major contributors to greenhouse emissions. But in the last fifteen years, with economic development, these two countries have overtaken the rest of the world as the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, along with the US. Chinese efforts to reduce greenhouses are therefore perhaps indicative of efforts underway internationally to address climate change. The recent US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change, in the context of the 2015 era, is a breakthrough because it indicated that the world’s number one and number two greenhouse emitters together would pledge to stop the growth of both of their emissions.
India has a greenhouse gas (GHG) emission that is approximately one fourth of that of China, and one third of that of the US. On the other hand, India’s economy has been growing rapidly and is likely to continue to grow as rapidly as that of China, if not more so. Eventually, India’s emissions trajectory is likely to be similar to the one that China has experienced over the last twenty years. The growth in emissions from India would negate the reduction of emissions from U.S. and China. India can avoid that trajectory; it has the opportunity to not contribute to the growth of global GHG emissions and prevent local air pollution issues, which have begun to plague China.
India has not made an international agreement on climate change, like the one taken by US and China at the end of 2014. In the months before the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, the world will be looking to see what stances India takes on climate change and GHG emissions.
The Indian Minister of Environment recently stated that India will not be cutting its GHG emissions, given that its priorities are poverty alleviation and economic development. In this sense, India seems to be repeating the path of China. Do you believe that this type of economic development, which occurs at the cost of environmental protection, is a stage which all countries must go through?
India is planning on using coal as its top source of power. How they burn that coal, and what mix of other fuels is added to the coal, are all factors that can impact emissions. India could perceivably use coal in a way that minimizes the amount of emissions— this would be more expensive upfront, but the long term benefits deserve consideration. To this end, India does not have to repeat the trajectory of China in its economic development.
Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share with us?
A Majority Leader in the US Senate once described addressing climate change as the most complex undertaking by mankind. Combating climate change involves complex issues of economic policies, political negotiations, and international cooperation. Regulating the climate of the planet requires solutions to be carried out in a dynamic fashion. The greenhouse gases that we put into the atmosphere today will stay there for fifty or more years; the machinery that puts out emissions into the air will effects that last for the next decades. So when you think about any action that affects the climate, such as the building of a coal-powered factory, you need to think about the fact that each year’s operation is having a fifty-year carbon effect, and a fifty-year operation would mean a commitment of centuries. Any international agreement that we make has to take into consideration these long-term consequences. Twenty years into the process of grappling with the complexity climate change as a species, we are trying to design a system that will be sustainable for future generations. What is worth keeping in mind is, we are the first generation to truly understand the impact of climate change, and we are probably the last generation to have the ability to change the direction in which we are moving to prevent catastrophic outcomes. But the future generations will have to remain equally committed.