The new president of the United States, Barack Obama, campaigned on a promise of “change.” His election as the first African-American to America’s highest office already achieved one big change.
To find out what other changes in policy may be coming from the Obama administration, and how they may affect Brazil’s interests, reporter Guilherme Salviati of BandNews FM radio in São Paulo recently interviewed Dr. Lewis Perelman, a consultant on policy and strategy who has worked for government and private sector clients in Washington, DC, for over 25 years – most recently on energy, climate, and technology issues as well as national security.
Climate change is going to be a major issue on the international agenda in 2009. Brazil has particular interests in this regarding deforestation and biofuels. What can Barack Obama do to prevent the fight to protect the world from global warming from failing to achieve its goals?
In my opinion, there is really nothing he can do, at least if you mean its most ideal goals. That’s because the extreme measures that some climate protection advocates claim are necessary to prevent some sort of climate catastrophe in the next century would be so onerous in their effect on the economy, would create so much poverty and economic distress, that politically they are not really viable. It’s very unlikely that any country would be politically able to implement such measures, much less achieve a global, international agreement to have them universally adopted.
We saw recently that the Doha round of international trade talks, which had been going on for more than six years, failed to come to an agreement. And the goal of that process was to make everyone in the world richer, by expanding trade. Brazil, in particular, as well as China, India, and other emerging market countries rejected the terms demanded by the United States, Europe, and others of the more developed countries. And vice versa.
Well, if all these countries could not come to an agreement aimed at making everyone richer, why would you expect them to agree to an international program whose expressed intention is to make at least some of the countries of the world poorer? From the point of view of social, political, or psychological science, what would be the basis for expecting that you could implement such an agreement? It just does not seem very plausible.
In fact, the talks at the recent meeting in Poznan, Poland – which were supposed to lay the groundwork for such an agreement to be forged at an international conference on climate policy scheduled for next December in Copenhagen – were broadly viewed as a setback if not a failure.
EU members agreed to allow eastern European nations such as Poland to continue to burn coal, which provides some 80 percent of their electric power – despite the fact that coal is viewed as the major villain of greenhouse gas emissions. And the Poznan talks were completely stalemated when the rich countries would not agree to the demands of poorer countries for a greater, more immediate investment in measures needed to adapt to the expected impacts of global warming.
Brazil was particularly insistent that rich countries should invest funds directly in protecting Brazil’s forests, rather than just awarding themselves carbon credits that would mainly benefit their own industries.
So to the extent that there is an agreement, it is unlikely to be anywhere near effective in doing what the most zealous climate activists say is necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to prevent a climate disaster. To the extent a program would be effective in imposing the extreme requirements they claim is necessary, there is almost no chance of achieving an agreement to adopt it.
From a policy perspective, that is not to say we should not care or should not be doing anything about climate change. What we should be doing – besides additional investment in research and development – is what a United Nations Foundation expert panel, among others, has called for, which is a much larger effort and investment in adaptation to changing climate conditions. Yet that need that so far has largely been neglected.
Given that certain climate conditions may occur in the future, how do we adapt our infrastructure, our economic processes, and so forth in order to survive or even take advantage of those conditions? We have a long time to do that. People have shown themselves to be very capable of adapting to environmental conditions, even extreme conditions.
But we need to make the effort and the necessary investments in adaptation. And it is likely that in most cases adaptation measures will be far more cost-effective than very expensive “climate protection” schemes that promise very little real benefit – at best delaying the projected impacts of warming by only a few years or even less.
Bjorn Lomborg, who heads the Copenhagen Consensus Center in Denmark, has written that Obama has often misstated or exaggerated the facts about global warming. Is Obama uninformed?
We really don’t know enough to say yet. For most of the last two years, Barack Obama has been running to get elected. He has made many, many speeches on many topics. So, much of what you have been hearing publicly during the transition has been recycling this kind of campaign material, even though the election is over.
There was a moment in the presidential campaign last spring when energy, and food, and other commodity prices were rising very rapidly, and it had become clear that the movement for biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel, which was aimed in part to prevent climate change, had proven very counterproductive.
Large areas of forest were being cleared in Brazil and Indonesia to expand biofuel plantations. At the same time, scientific research was reported showing that the effect of the biofuels program was not reducing greenhouse gases emissions but actually increasing them. And most seriously, the rapid rise of food prices led to massive hunger among the most disadvantaged populations all over the world, provoking food riots and political instability in a number of countries.
So we learned an important lesson: That the broad intentions of policies are different from their actual impacts.
And at that time, during the campaign, Barack Obama was asked by a member of the audience at a town meeting what would he do as president in response to the new research showing that ethanol was damaging to the environment. He answered, explicitly, that if new science shows that the programs were wrong, he would change the programs. Which is about all you could ask from him.
In regard to the particular Obama speech Lomborg criticized, it does contain a number of questionable or debatable assertions. For instance, Obama cited “record drought” while Lomborg points out that the US actually has been getting wetter, on average, since the acute drought of the 1930s.
And Obama said that “storms are growing stronger” with each hurricane season – in fact, data Lomborg cites from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency show that maximum storm energy peaked in 1994 and total hurricane energy has been going down since 2005. In the context of a political campaign, such misstatements are not particularly unusual and probably do not make much difference.
Once Obama becomes president, if he were to continue to make such statements contrary to the facts, then you might start to wonder about the quality of his advisors, and whether he was adequately critical in dealing with their advice. However, the team he has nominated represents very diverse viewpoints, so he likely will be hearing much debate among his advisors on these and other issues.
What do you see as the most important issue of climate change policy?
The most important thing to understand about climate change, from a scientific point of view, is that it cannot be prevented. There is no disagreement among scientists about that.
The earth’s climate has been changing continually for 4 billion years. It will continue to change for hundreds of millions of years to come. There are many different forces that cause climate to change, to get warmer and colder, wetter and drier and so forth that have nothing to do with human activity. So there is no policy or program that is going to prevent climate change.
The only real issue that we can do anything about is how we develop our physical systems, our economic systems, our infrastructure, our homes and buildings, transportation systems – and how we decide where we build and where we do not build cities and so on – so that our society is more resilient and adaptable to whatever environmental changes occur.
Whether those are from climate, earthquakes, volcanoes, other natural forces, the threats of terrorism and crime – there are many things that threaten people and that we need to learn how to manage and adapt to. Climate is one of the things we need to be thinking about, but it is not the only thing or even the most important thing.
Well, I guess the idea is that we cannot fight nature.
In some sense I suppose you could say we have been fighting nature since the beginning of the human species. We can win some battles, and have, but we won’t win the war. We can’t really change the nature of nature. And that includes human nature too. The survival of our species, like every other, depends on our ability to adapt to natural forces that not only are vastly more powerful than our own, but often erratic and surprising.
So you are saying we can’t prevent climate change but we need to prepare for it in the way we build buildings, manage our energy, and things like that?
Yes, that’s right. And we need to keep in mind that climate can change not only gradually but very rapidly, as it has done many times in the past.
At the end of the last Ice Age, the earth had been getting steadily warmer for about 2,000 years when 12,800 years ago the northern hemisphere very suddenly returned to glacial conditions. “Very suddenly” meaning in just a few years, perhaps a decade. Then after 12 very cold and dry centuries, the climate just as suddenly reversed and began to warm again.
It’s uncertain why those sudden climate changes occurred, but it clearly happened long before the Industrial Revolution and before the human population was anywhere near big enough to have any significant effect on the global environment.
Recent scientific study also shows, as a matter of fact, that the earth’s magnetic field is weakening, particularly in the southern hemisphere near Brazil. Among other things, this will increase the impact on the atmosphere of the stream of radiation pouring from the sun called the solar wind.
You can see the power of that radiation in the auroras that light up the sky near the north and south poles. So you could expect that change in the magnetic field to have some effect on the lower atmosphere and the climate. And it is caused by forces deep inside the earth that have nothing to do with greenhouse gases.
Volcanoes have affected and will continue to affect the atmosphere and climate far more powerfully than humans have or can. A super volcano that exploded in what is now Indonesia 74,000 years ago lowered the earth’s temperature by 3 degrees C. for several years and had a devastating effect on plant and animal life, possibly killing off as much as 90 percent of the human population.
Even relatively ordinary geophysical events can alter climate. The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 – thousands of times less massive than the Toba cataclysm – reduced the earth’s temperature by 0.4 degrees C. for more than a year afterward, overwhelming the warming effects of human greenhouse gas emissions.
If we cannot prevent climate change, then, what does that imply about our energy policies?
Well, it’s a separate issue. We have a lot of interest in energy because it drives the machinery of our whole economy. And there are different types of alternative energy sources and systems that have diverse geopolitical risks, strategic risks, economic costs, environmental impacts, and so forth that our energy policies need to consider, so that we can make the best choices to meet our needs.
My impression is that the major interest driving Brazil’s big investment in biofuels, at the beginning, was economic: That is, Brazil wanted to be more self-reliant in its energy sources, and did not want so much of its capital drained to purchase foreign oil.
So that was a very practical motivation for Brazil to develop its biofuels industry that was not necessarily linked to concerns about climate change. It may have something to do with climate, but climate probably was not the major reason for the biofuels program or why Brazil may continue to want to take advantage of those resources.
There is more than just a single interest that drives policy. There are many different interests and considerations that get mixed into developing policy. For the foreseeable future, economic and strategic considerations are likely to be far more urgent and influential than concerns about long-range climate trends that by and large we cannot control.
Particularly relevant to Brazil’s interest is the continuing US concern about its own dependence on imported oil, which not only adds to America’s trade deficit and financial woes but feeds revenue to some countries that are hostile to US strategic interests.
Significantly, a new “energy independence” lobby in Washington called EA-21 is pushing to replace more of the oil used in US transportation with “safe” biofuels. One of the key planks in that organization’s agenda is to get the United States to drop its tariff barrier to ethanol imported from Brazil.
You have written that the politics of global warming in Australia may foretell how that issue may unfold during the Obama administration. How is that?
In the case of Australia, the previous, center-right government led by John Howard was very unpopular for a variety of reasons. In particular it was strongly criticized by the green movement and environmentalists there for not taking what they felt were strong enough positions on global warming and other such issues. In Australia’s last election campaign in 2007, the Labor candidate, Kevin Rudd, was very critical of the environmental record of the Howard government, and presumably promised to be more supportive of the green policy agenda.
But after more than a year in office, Prime Minister Rudd has been forced by the necessity of the global economic crisis to focus on the usual economic issues of employment, finance, growth, etc. and has been less ideal in his environmental policies than the green activists wanted, so now they have turned against him and his government.
It would not be terribly surprising if something similar takes place in the US in the next year as the Obama administration takes charge. Its top priority will be handling the economic crisis. The public wants jobs, they want to see the decline of the economy reversed, and anything that undermines or obstructs that will be very unpopular.
Obama is both an acutely intelligent and highly practical politician. It would be very surprising if he were to embrace policies that were prone to strong public rejection. But then the green lobby may well become disappointed in, and critical of the Obama administration.
Will Obama’s energy and climate policies produce the millions of “green jobs” that some of his supporters have predicted?
Well, again, the important part of that phrase “green jobs” is not the green, it’s the jobs. That’s what the overwhelming majority of the public is worried about. If there are green jobs, people will be happy that there are green jobs. If there are purple, or red, or orange jobs, they will be just as happy about that. If jobs keep disappearing, and there are no new jobs of some color, they will be unhappy. The central issue is the state of the economy.
The environmental, or green lobby is attempting to convey that its agenda is consistent with solving America’s or the world’s economic problems. It may be true to some extent, and it may well not be true to some extent. In truth, we don’t have any operationally useful definition, from an economist’s viewpoint, of what constitutes a “green” job. So the promise of green jobs doesn’t really tell us anything about the real impacts of specific policies and programs.
What we do know is that both Obama and the Congress which is controlled by his party are committed to a major economic stimulus initiative as soon as possible. They have talked about something in the range of US$ 500 billion to US$ 1 trillion. That would be in addition to the several hundred billion dollars committed to various financial rescue and bailout efforts in the past year.
Among the possible strategies talked about for the stimulus program, there have been calls to put a large share of those funds into infrastructure projects – building things. Some of that might be considered green, depending on how you define “green.” But the focus is on generating employment and on activities that will stimulate the economy.
Barack Obama chose Dr. Steven Chu to be Secretary of Energy. Do you expect any change in US energy and climate policy as a result?
Any change will be because of the president, not any member of his cabinet. What Chu’s appointment illustrates, again, is that there are multiple policy threads in play at the same time.
Chu would be the first scientist to hold that position, which has impressed some people as a significant change from past practice. The US Department of Energy has a range of roles and responsibilities. A large share of its overall program, around a third, involves nuclear weapons.
Chu has been head of one of the major US nuclear weapons laboratories. So his selection to be Secretary may be more significant in relation to the new administration’s concerns about nuclear weapons than about energy policy per se. Especially considering that Obama as a senator has been actively interested in so-called “loose nukes” and other problems of nuclear weapons proliferation.
Brazil, of course, possesses and is developing advanced nuclear technology, and Brazil also shares a commitment to nonproliferation. Given US concerns in this area, the Obama administration is likely to look to Brazil as an important partner in nuclear safety and nonproliferation efforts.
More generally, you cannot judge what Obama’s future policies will be by his nominations of people to various cabinet and other staff positions. Because of the low public approval of President Bush, and the high expectations for the president-elect, Obama was far more visible and active during the transition than would be normal – announcing his staff picks and speaking on his economic goals – mainly to assure markets and the public that the transition would be rapid and efficient.
Even though he had no functional authority, and reminding people repeatedly that the US has “only one president at a time,” Obama rightly felt the need to assure the world that his administration would be prepared to actively attack these critical problems immediately after his inauguration.
This transition between administrations has been very unusual, if not unprecedented, because it has occurred at a time of global financial and economic crisis and while, at the same time, the US was engaged in two overseas wars. In the span of one year, we saw energy, food, and commodity prices first skyrocket and then crash. More emerging crises, such as the terror attacks on Mumbai and the re-ignited conflict in Gaza, did not wait for the US to install a new president.
But compared to the dire urgency of these immediate crises, it is clear that very long-term concerns like global warming are not what is most on the minds of most of the people in the US or in most of the countries of the world – I imagine including Brazil as well.
So you are saying it is too soon to tell what Obama is going to do.
Yes. In general, it is rare that the statements that candidates make during a campaign have much bearing on what they actually do once in office. You may recall that George W. Bush was very critical of the Clinton administration for engaging the US in foreign affairs that he characterized as “nation-building.” That is, getting involved in regime changes and seeking to alter the political structures of countries outside the United States. Of course, Bush’s subsequent policies were rather drastically different once he became president.
Journalist Guilherme Salviati reports on international issues for BandNews FM in São Paulo. Contact him at email@example.com.
Lewis Perelman is a strategy consultant and authority on infrastructure resilience, security, and sustainability in Washington, DC. He was previously interviewed in Brazzil in May 2007. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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