US And China Pledge To Cut Carbon Emissions

Emphasis on the word “pledge.”

First, the news. The US and China, following secret negotiations, have jointly pledged to accelerate carbon emission cuts:

A climate deal between China and the United States, the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 carbon polluters, is viewed as essential to concluding a new global accord. Unless Beijing and Washington can resolve their differences, climate experts say, few other countries will agree to mandatory cuts in emissions, and any meaningful worldwide pact will be likely to founder.

“The United States and China have often been seen as antagonists,” said a senior official, speaking in advance of Mr. Obama’s remarks. “We hope that this announcement can usher in a new day in which China and the U.S. can act much more as partners.”

As part of the agreement, Mr. Obama announced that the United States would emit 26 percent to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005. That is double the pace of reduction it targeted for the period from 2005 to 2020.

China’s pledge to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, if not sooner, is even more remarkable. To reach that goal, Mr. Xi pledged that so-called clean energy sources, like solar power and windmills, would account for 20 percent of China’s total energy production by 2030.

New, and more ambitious targets, are of course necessary and welcome (more detail here). But China, with its authoritarian political structure, has a far greater probability of actually meeting these targets than the polarized, climate-denying, sacrifice-averse, American political system. At least for the near term, President Obama will have to wrestle with a Republican majority in Congress that is both nihilistic and dishonest in its attempts to suck political gain from its insistence that climate change isn’t a problem.

Here’s just one recent example of what the White House (and the planet) is dealing with:

In September, John P. Holdren, the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, was testifying to a Congressional committee about climate change. Representative Steve Stockman, a Republican from Texas, recounted a visit he had made to NASA, where he asked what had ended the ice age:

“And the lead scientist at NASA said this — he said that what ended the ice age was global wobbling. That’s what I was told. This is a lead scientist down in Maryland; you’re welcome to go down there and ask him the same thing.

“So, and my second question, which I thought it was an intuitive question that should be followed up — is the wobbling of the earth included in any of your modelings? And the answer was no…

“How can you take an element which you give the credit for the collapse of global freezing and into global warming but leave it out of your models?”

That “lead scientist at NASA” was me. In July, Mr. Stockman spent a couple of hours at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center listening to presentations about earth science and climate change. The subject of ice ages came up. Mr. Stockman asked, “How can your models predict the climate when no one can tell me what causes the ice ages?”

I responded that, actually, the science community understood very well what takes the earth into and out of ice ages. A Serbian mathematician, Milutin Milankovitch, worked out the theory during the early years of the 20th century. He calculated by hand that variations in the earth’s tilt and the shape of its orbit around the sun start and end ice ages. I said that you could think of ice ages as resulting from wobbles in the earth’s tilt and orbit.

The time scales involved are on the order of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years. I explained that this science has been well tested against the fossil record and is broadly accepted. I added that we don’t normally include these factors in 100-year climate projections because the effects are too tiny to be important on such a short time-scale.

And that, I thought, was that.

No, that is never that when it comes to honestly confronting the implications of reducing carbon emissions. And I have no doubt that Republicans will do just about everything they can to eviscerate both the President and his climate pledge. But at least the battle is slowly being joined. And climate needs to be central to the 2016 elections, and every election after that until real progress is made.