George Shultz, who served as U.S. secretary of state for nearly eight years under President Ronald Reagan, has written a terrific column for the Washington Post titled How to Gain a Consensus on Climate Change. Shultz, a distinguished fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, begins from the reasonable assumption that acting to slow climate change is both necessary and possible, and proceeds quickly to the more important discussion of how the U.S. could lead the process of creating a global consensus. In doing this he draws heavily on his experience as a key player in the only other global effort to address a human-created threat to the planet's fragile atmosphere: the release of ozone-depleting substances.
During the Reagan administration, we faced the problem of depletion of the ozone layer, and negotiations resulted in the Montreal Protocol. To be sure, the problem then was less complex than that of today. However, there are parallels, and lessons from the Montreal Protocol can be useful.
The reductions called for in ozone-depleting substances were aggressive but realistic in that they could be undertaken without severe economic damage, in part because demand triggered the development by private industry of needed chemicals and appliances.
Because we in the United States were ready to take action, we could ask others to act as well.
The protocol also recognized the importance of a little wiggle room, so provision was made for the possibility of special arrangements among countries.
The countries with low per capita incomes were integral to the process and were given special treatment in terms of trading rules and the establishment of a fund that could help them meet their obligations.
He then goes on to draw out the relevant lessons from this experience, including the importance of U.S. leadership, of patience and flexibility, of keeping key constituencies involved, and of using economic incentives such as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax. (Interestingly, he prefers a carbon tax for its greater simplicity and reduced susceptibility to scams. Me, too).
As for China and India:
Do not expect China, India and other developing countries to accept what amounts to a cap on economic growth. They will not—and cannot—do that. We must create market incentives for them to cut emissions while continuing to grow and find actions that are economically feasible in a relatively low-income environment. We may also need to give them extra time, even allowing some short-term emissions growth, before requiring them to reduce their emissions. This is similar to the way we accommodated developing countries under the Montreal Protocol.
Another imperative, a derivative of the previous point, is the need to deal effectively with issues of intellectual property. The obligation to reward innovators must be reconciled with the needs of low-income societies.
The negotiations should not conclude until important first steps are identified and agreed upon so that everyone takes some action.
As we consider a new treaty, we must recognize that one size will not fit the world, even though some technologies may have wide, even universal, application. The Montreal Protocol, as a successful environmental treaty, provides a model for establishing a process with wide agreement to take important action.
It's exciting to me that such a respected figure in the Republican Party (Shultz's Wikipedia bio asserts that he continues to be a strategist for the GOP) has weighed in with such a thoughtful and comprehensive proposal. It's a further sign that we are headed back towards a badly needed national consensus on climate change. And his proposal is in line with two key ideas put forward by researchers here at CGD: the importance of international agreements that take into account the needs and interests of the developing countries, and the need for solid data (in this case reliable data on carbon emissions necessary for either carbon taxes or cap-and-trade).
As the U.S. presidential election gathers speed, voters, reporters, and debate moderators should start asking the candidates a simple question: "Do you agree with George Shultz's proposal for gaining a global climate consensus?" If the candidates all say "yes" we will be well along the way to creating a national consensus that the U.S. can and must lead the way on this crucial issue.