Elizabeth Kolbert writes: On Tuesday evening, when Senate Democrats rejected efforts to force a vote approving the Keystone XL pipeline, they knew they were just delaying the inevitable. The measure was defeated by one vote, and several naysayers will no longer be around come January. The new, Republican-controlled Senate will take up the measure again — “This’ll be an early item on the agenda in the next Congress,” incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed on Tuesday night — and, the next time around, everyone knows, it will pass. In preparation for this eventuality, White House officials have begun hinting that President Barack Obama might be willing to trade approval of the pipeline for Republican acceptance of one of his favored policies.
If this is indeed the President’s plan, let’s hope he asks the right price. Otherwise, his claim to an environmental legacy will end up being what he traded away. As it happens, the Keystone vote came exactly one week after Obama and China’s President, Xi Jinping, announced that they had agreed on a plan to curb carbon emissions. Under the agreement, China, which is now the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitter on an annual basis, would cap its emissions by 2030. For its part, the United States, which is still the world’s greatest emitter on a cumulative basis, would reduce its emissions by twenty-eight per cent by 2025. (This is against a 2005 baseline — U.S. emissions have already fallen about ten per cent since that year, owing, in part, to a substitution of natural gas for coal in electricity production.) Obama called the agreement “historic,” and rightly so. It marks the first time that China has officially acknowledged that its rapidly rising emissions need to stop rising, and it also offers a significantly more ambitious goal for the U.S. than it has previously been willing to commit to. Grist called the deal “a game changer,” while Vox labelled it a “BFD.” Many commentators noted that the odds of getting a meaningful global agreement on climate change at a summit scheduled for next year in Paris — odds that had seemed close to zero — suddenly looked a good deal better. The U.S.-China deal, as a Guardian editorial put it, “transforms the prospects” for the summit.
President Obama deserves a great deal of credit for the agreement, as does Secretary of State John Kerry, who conducted the behind-the-scenes negotiations. But, as many commentators have also noted, the deal doesn’t get the U.S. or China remotely near where they need to be if the world is to avoid disaster — which both countries, along with pretty much every other state in the world, have defined as warming of more than two degrees Celsius. Chris Hope, a policy researcher at Cambridge University, ran the terms of the agreement through what’s known as an “integrated assessment model.” He also included in his analysis a recent commitment by the European Union to cut its emissions by forty per cent before 2030. He found that even if all of the pledges made so far are fulfilled, there will be “less than a 1% chance of keeping the rise in global mean temperatures” below two degrees Celsius: “Most likely the rise will be about 3.8° C.” [Continue reading…]