Now that the mid-term elections are over in the US,  President Obama is free to announce the climate commitments that voters didn’t need to hear. (I did say this would happen.) It’s a “landmark” agreement (with China) and a “gamechanger,” but no one can point out what  happens if either country doesn’t stick to its agreement.

Chinese dragonThe end-point of this grand theater of intent and glorious promises is Paris 2015.

What matters is the appearance of “momentum” — and this show ticks all the boxes. The two global superpowers make a sudden, unexpected agreement to reduce emissions and the press can call it “remarkable,” as if it has substance.  Obama –  the President without a majority in either house of Congress –  has announced a big new target of 26% reduction by 2025.  What can a lame-duck President achieve? Fluff and PR. As it happens, U.S.  emissions have been falling for years because of the miracle of shale oil. This announcement supposedly doubles the pace of that reduction which was occurring anyhow, and which had nothing to do with any Green policies aimed at reducing emissions. Furthermore, Obama, magically, will do it without  imposing new restrictions on power plants or vehicles. What’s not to like?

The Chinese, meanwhile, were projected to hit their peak emissions in 2030 anyhow. So their big commitment is to keep doing what they were going to do anyway mostly. Let’s have a press conference. Everybody cheer. It’s historic baby.

All the important questions go unasked and unanswered

What’s the punishment, the 10,000-line legal agreement? What exactly will happen if neither country meets these “intentions” and “targets”? Is that a big slap on the eiffelwrist coming, or will someone have to pay real money — and is the fine in dollars or renminbi?

How many degrees will this agreement cool the world? Is that zero degrees to one decimal place or is that zero to two?

No one needs to mention these minor details. That’s not what matters. It’s not about the climate, but about the appearance of doing something in order to sweep the rest of the world into action:

These actions will also inject momentum into the global climate negotiations on the road to reaching a successful new climate agreement next year in Paris.

Nobody is hiding that this is about PR and not really about pollution. The first paragraph of the New York Times lays it right out:

BEIJING — China and the United States made common cause on Wednesday against the threat of climate change, staking out an ambitious joint plan to curb carbon chinacoal2emissions as a way to spur nations around the world to make their own cuts in greenhouse gases.

What exactly did China commit to?

…a first-ever commitment by China to stop its emissions from growing by 2030.

Sixteen years from now China may be producing a lot more CO2 each year, but they promise to keep their ultra high level at the same ultra high level year after year from then on. They are promising to stick to “extreme,” but not rise to “obscene.”

You can see how strong the  leader’s commitment is. Obama even wrote a letter:

Administration officials said the agreement, which was worked out quietly between the United States and China over nine months and included a letter from Mr. Obama to Mr. Xi proposing a joint approach, could galvanize efforts to negotiate a new global climate agreement by 2015.

But they did meet for two whole days with only a few distractions about military and trade stuff:

It was the signature achievement of an unexpectedly productive two days of meetings between the leaders. Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi also agreed to a military accord designed to avert clashes between Chinese and American planes and warships in the tense waters off the Chinese coast, as well as an understanding to cut tariffs for technology productsNY Times

It doesn’t take long to change the energy infrastructure of a nation, just a couple of busy days of talking and a letter. Where is the fine print?

Al Gore came to Australia in June to get Clive Palmer to pressure Prime Minister Abbott to commit to doing something “if the rest of the world did.” Thank goodness he did not. How many political leaders will be fooled by a smoke and mirrors agreement like this into thinking it means something?

Bill Shorten was:

Mr Shorten said on Wednesday the “historic and ambitious” agreement showed global leadership from the U.S. and China.

“At the G20 this week, Australia will hold the embarrassing title of being the only nation going backwards on climate change. With China and the United States representing around one-third of the global economy and over 40% of global emissions, there will be significant momentum to deal with climate change in Brisbane,” he said.

Yes, let’s manage the national economy according to the “Embarrassment Index” — forget productivity, health, wealth, and happiness. It’s right up there next to the GCMF: the Global Climate Momentum Factor.
This article originally appeared at JoNova.



  • Joanne Nova

    A prize-winning science graduate in molecular biology. She has given keynotes about the medical revolution, gene technology and aging at conferences. She hosted a children’s TV series on Channel Nine, and has done over 200 radio interviews, many on the Australian ABC. She was formerly an associate lecturer in Science Communication at the ANU. She’s author of The Skeptics Handbook which has been translated into 15 languages. Each day 5,000 people read