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UN Climate Change Actions Merely Symbolic, Cass Claims in Lecture


Oren Cass
Oren Cass

In his Jan. 25 talk “Leading Nowhere: the Futility and Farce of Global Climate Negotiations,” Oren Cass criticized the global approach to addressing climate change. He claimed that it’s not that leaders don’t want to reduce emissions, it’s that it isn’t possible based on insurmountable challenges like cost and complexity. A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Cass was the domestic policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2011-2012 presidential campaign. Cass has outlined conservative policy approaches on topics including climate change, poverty and environmental regulation and his articles and columns have been widely published. 

Focusing on the December 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, Cass criticized the actions taken as merely symbolic. According to Cass, Paris abandoned the premise of collective action, abandoned the premise of an enforceable agreement, and abandoned the premise of objective standards. He provided examples of proposals, including one that was a single sentence, and explained that they did not actually pledge any action. “These are the pledges you’d expect from the countries that already agreed they were going to focus on growing their economies,” he said. He argued that it is impossible to expect developing nations to adopt expensive energy technologies when coal could develop their economies more quickly.

To the question “what if [developed nations] paid [developing nations] to cut carbon emissions?”, Cass said that this method raises the same problems as any foreign aid effort. “There’s no willingness on the part of the developing world to commit to using money [to reduce emissions] and there’s no willingness on the part of the developed world to provide that money.”

“Why abandon the framework that requires action? Why applaud non-action as significant? Why supplement the applause with cash?” Cass asked. “These are things you would do if you are really excited about getting a piece of paper signed, not if you’re actually committing to progress.”

Later in the lecture, Cass raised the question of why nations do not consider coercive methods, such as placing embargoes upon countries that build new coal plants, or even bombing coal plants. He clarified that he thinks this would be a terrible idea and unfair to developing countries. “But if we know it would be unfair to make them [reduce emissions], why are we pursuing this when we know they won’t comply?” Cass argued for changing to a “world hunger model” for policy, instead of treating it as a domestic issue, would keep the focus on what the United States can actually accomplish.

During the Q&A portion of the talk, an attendee asked what Cass thinks would be a suitable response to climate change. He said he found it interesting that this was one issue people try to solve personally, through small-scale contributions like reusable water-bottles or carpooling. While these actions have political saliency, such efforts do not affect emissions. Cass said that the necessary response is innovation and that the most impactful ways people can make a difference is through science. “We need to design a subsidy that decreases over time, so if you don’t think your design will be cost competitive, you don’t jump in,” Cass said. 

Cass said that he does credit Paris for starting a conversation about innovation funding. “If we’d said ‘let’s not pretend we’re saving the world by cutting emissions, let’s decide what to do with investments, it could have been productive,” he said.
At the end of the lecture, when asked whether there was any optimistic takeaway, Cass said that humans have an extraordinary capacity to adapt. “[Responding to climate change] needs to be a vocation not an avocation to make things that prepare society for changes. It will be a long slog in which your own contribution won’t be tangible.”

The lecture was sponsored by the Environmental Studies department.

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