The Duck of Minerva

The new neighbors

2 April 2009

Imagine for a moment that the world is a community of states. For decades, European states have lived just across the pond from some of the richest and most powerful people in the world: the Americans. While the Europeans have generally been on good terms with their neighbors, they often admit in private that the Americans can be loud, bullying, and inconsiderate of community needs.

For example, Americans produce more pollution than anyone else in the community, but have been mostly uninterested in viewing global climate change as a problem that requires immediate remedial action. In this case, Venus imagines herself to be “awake and alert” while Mars is sleeping. Alone, Venus cannot prevent climate change; she needs Mars.

This year, the (White) House is of course newly occupied by a young family that is quite different from the prior occupants — hipper, younger, more urban, and racially diverse.

Will the Europeans across the pond like them as much as neighbors as they did when the Obamas were mere tourists?

As we’ve come to expect from Barack Obama, he’s trying to instill hope.

While most of the media is focusing on Obama’s visit to Europe, the real action on U.S.-European relations may be happening out of the limelight.

Consider the latest negotiations to stem global warming. Todd Stern, the new U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change began his March 29 speech in Bonn with these words:

I want to say on behalf of President Obama and his entire team that we are very glad to be back, we want to make up for lost time, and we are seized with the urgency of the task before us.

Mars stirs! Stern continued:

I look forward to working with all of you and listening to your ideas so that we can chart a new and more effective course forward.

You will not hear anyone on my team cast doubt upon or downplay the threat of global climate change. The science is clear, and the threat is real. The facts on the ground are outstripping the worst case scenarios. The costs of inaction—or inadequate actions—are unacceptable.

Political scientists like me have for years explained that the climate change negotiations cannot readily borrow from the Montreal Protocol process that virtually eliminated man-made products containing CFCs. It was relatively easy and inexpensive to replace a chemical that was not integral to the world economy, partly because those products were mostly produced and consumed in the affluent countries that agreed to the environmental treaty. Newly developed technologies could be sold to states in the Global South as soon as they demanded (and could afford) air conditioning, refrigeration, etc.

By contrast, oil and coal are vital to the international political economy and any transition away from them is bound to be difficult and expensive for the entire world. It will be tempting to burn cheap fossil fuels, especially if relatively poorer countries have vast reserves. China has enormous supplies of coal, oil is distributed throughout the Middle East, in Mexico and Venezuela, and in Nigeria.

Yet, in his Bonn address, Stern explicitly embraced Montreal as a model for the climate change negotiations. Affluent states like the U.S. will have to invest in new technologies so as to convert a low carbon economy even while helping developing countries skip fossil fuel technologies. India, for example, successfully used cell phone technology to leap-frog wired phone service and expanded access to this basic communication device from 55 million to 350 million users in less than a decade.

Neither Stern nor his boss are a Pollyanna. They expect the Copenhagen negotiations to be difficult, but both now say the U.S. is committed to pragmatism, not political ideology.

The new tenants in Washington say they will work with the neighbors across the pond to find workable solutions to a central problem for the 21st century. That’s an interesting development with tremendous potential geopolitical implications.