When world leaders gather in Copenhagen today for negotiations on a new agreement to combat climate change, their success or failure will ride on economics, not environmental science.Should it be any surprise that great power interests -- in a world of independent sovereign states -- are jockeying for advantage in the very institutional regime that supposed to formalize greater global governance?
Theoretically, the two-week conference will focus on measures to limit emissions of the heat-trapping gases blamed for global warming. But the major debates will center on money: How could emission limits affect major industries and the jobs they provide? How could a new climate treaty reshape the global economic playing field?
Those issues sharply divide some of the most important players at the conference, as they ponder the economic possibilities and pitfalls.
For China and nearly all of Europe, the issue offers tempting opportunities to expand industries and create jobs by developing and selling new technologies for wind, solar, nuclear and other low-emission energy. That is especially the case if there is a strong agreement to move away from the carbon-based energy sources that the world has depended on for more than a century.
Many of those nations, particularly China, devoted huge chunks of recent economic stimulus measures to low-emission energy technology.
"You're seeing a shift in developing countries," said Ned Helme, a climate policy veteran who is president of the Center for Clean Air Policy in Washington. "Rather than looking out and saying, 'How do we protect our old cement kilns?' they're looking forward to clean energy as their new market."
Meanwhile, the most immediate concern of nations such as the United States, Canada and India is the potential economic and political cost of imposing stricter limits on greenhouse gas emissions -- particularly for their coal, oil and manufacturing industries.
For example, the Obama administration won more than $80 billion in stimulus spending to promote "clean energy." But its push to combat climate change and create "clean energy" jobs has been slowed by resistance from members of Congress who represent parts of the country that produce coal and oil or depend on those energy sources for power and manufacturing.
Tension between the possible winners and losers of a low-carbon energy future runs through every major negotiating topic, including how deeply individual nations will cut their emissions and how much richer countries are willing to spend to help poorer countries adopt cleaner energy sources and adapt to a warming world.
State interests will prevail in the end. And we may never see a treaty, or at least not a genuinely politcally binding one.
See also, Richard Harris, "For Public, Climate Change Not A Priority Issue," via Memeorandum. Also, from Gallup, "Top-Emitting Countries Differ on Climate Change Threat."