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James Stafford

James Stafford

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Energy and Geopolitics - New Realities Take Shape: Interview with David Shorr

The climate challenge drives home the interdependent realities of the 21st Century, and there have been some tough lessons learned since Kyoto. All of this ties in to energy issues that shape domestic politics and complex geopolitical realities.

To help us look into these issues and more we spoke with David Shorr. David is a program officer at the Stanley Foundation, though the views expressed are his own. He blogs at Democracy Arsenal and can be followed on Twitter @David_Shorr

In an exclusive interview with Oilprice.com, Shorr discusses:

•    Why a binding climate treaty poses problems
•    What we’ve learned since Kyoto
•    Why climate change financing is a key issue
•    Why climate change is a geopolitical issue
•    How Iran fits into the energy equation
•    Why the US is stuck over Syria
•    Why Afghanistan was the biggest recent US policy blunder

Interview by James Stafford of Oilprice.com

James Stafford: Can you take us through the international response to climate change and some of the positive and negative effects of a legally binding Kyoto follow-on treaty?

David Shorr: The bottom line for climate change, and thus for any international agreement, is reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. How can levels of pollutants be cut to avoid the worst effects of climate change?  Like many problems in our interconnected world, it’s a matter of spurring nations to act on behalf of the common good -- to bear in mind not just national self-interests but also shared interests in averting climatic disruptions that would be bad for everyone.

So we should think of this challenge as trying to figure out what kinds of diplomatic frameworks will get all the key players to do their part in cutting GHGs. The debate over a legally binding successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol is about the international regime within which efforts to reduce emissions will take place.

For some issues like limiting nuclear weapons, a binding treaty is absolutely the appropriate form for agreements. In this case, it isn’t quite as clear.  Will pushing for the strongest form of commitment prompt big polluters like the US, China, and India to cooperate or resist?  If we take any lessons from the experience since Kyoto, it’s that we need all those who cause the problem to contribute toward the solution.

James Stafford: Have there been any major policy missteps with Kyoto?

David Shorr: Instead of second-guessing the efforts of the mid-1990s, a more constructive approach is to focus on the things we know now versus 15-20 years ago. Regardless of whether it could be foreseen at the time, the Kyoto agreement didn’t induce the US, China or India to cut emissions -- by now a glaring problem.

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For Asia’s two big rising powers, this was intentional; Kyoto was a two-tiered system requiring GHG reductions from developed nations but not developing countries, which could actually sell their allotted pollution rights to the industrialized world. On the plus side, awareness in China and India that they must be part of the solution has grown in recent years. Both countries still put their highest priority on economic growth, but have committed to make that growth less carbon-intensive.

James Stafford: What SHOULD the strategy be for building momentum for countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions?

David Shorr: Rather than looking back at Kyoto, maybe the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference should serve as the key reference point. That meeting was significant in terms of broadly accepted principles as well as Chinese and Indian willingness to boost their commitment -- and the connection between the two. We’ve seen that Beijing and New Delhi are more amenable to a system of peer review for GHG reductions than a fully elaborated and codified treaty. And here in our own country, senate Republicans’ waning interest in the issue (or outright hostility) makes US ratification of any treaty uncertain at best. 

Not that shifting to a looser “pledge and review” framework would settle all the difficult issues. China and India have also put up resistance when it comes to measurement, reporting, and verification of GHG levels.  Yet these kinds of steps to monitor progress are no less important for an informal climate regime. The whole point of a peer review system would be to get on with the work of cutting emissions instead of wrangling over every word of a draft treaty.

The United States and other industrial powers have to hold up their side of the bargain, too. Because of the congressional roadblocks, the US action on climate has focused in a couple key sectors: transportation and power generation. After saving the auto industry during the financial crisis, President Obama reached an agreement with the car manufacturers that will nearly double the fuel economy of our overall fleet. The plentiful supply and low prices of natural gas enabled the administration to work with power suppliers on tightened new-source emission standards -- though the process of drafting the associated regulations has faced the same sort of resistance as Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform. The other big issue is climate change financing.  In Copenhagen the developed countries promised to steadily ramp up tens of billions (USD) in annual public and private financing to dampen the causes and effects of climate change in the developing world. As developing nations see it, this is a key test of developed countries’ good faith.

James Stafford: How is climate change a geopolitical issue?

David Shorr: For one thing, we’re talking about changes to the ‘geo’ part: geography. A changing climate means changing agriculture, water, monsoon patterns, migration across borders, coastlines, navigation of the Arctic Ocean -- to name just a few. It changes a lot of calculations, and people in capitals around the world who look at statecraft in terms of future trends are checking their geopolitical math.

But it isn’t just at that level of international political and strategic positioning; the climate challenge also drives home the interdependent realities of the 21st Century. As I said earlier, the bad-case scenarios for rising global temperature are bad for everyone. We are truly all in it together. The way I put it is that countries’ shared interests can be traced to their shared fate. Collective action problems like this always come with a high degree of difficulty to reach a solution, and high stakes for failure. 

James Stafford: We believe that almost every geopolitical development can on some level be traced back to energy. Do you agree?

David Shorr: I think that’s true. As long as the global economy runs on scarce fossil fuels, the map of energy exporters and importers tells you a lot about international politics -- domestic politics too. The energy needs for continued high growth rates in China and India is a strategic imperative for them; that’s what relegates climate to being a second-tier concern.

Then look how this plays into the dynamic with Iran over its nuclear program. Iran’s reliance on energy exports is precisely the lever being used to apply outside pressure, through sanctions. From the other side, China, India, Japan, and South Korea are all significant markets for Iranian energy. It was never realistic to require them to zero out their Iranian fuel imports, so the sanctions regime instead calls for decreased purchases, which the importers have complied with.

And in many parts of the world, the so-called resource curse saddles many resource-rich countries with corrupt and repressive leaders.

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James Stafford: Has the US lost its footing in the Middle East, beginning with the war in Iraq, gaining momentum as it was caught off guard with the Arab Spring, and most recently visible in its incoherent policy on Syria?

David Shorr: We have to be careful not to gloss over an important distinction between two questions. The question of what’s happening in the region is different from the question of America’s ability to control events and outcomes. We shouldn’t talk about these issues as if the United States has a magic wand to make the Middle East peaceful and democratic. There’s a difference between wanting a certain outcome in Egypt or Syria -- where the bloodshed and Assad’s brutality are truly horrifying -- and making it happen. Our discussions of foreign policy should ask tough questions about how US actions will lead to the desired result, rather than falling short or causing unintended consequences.

The Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq was a case of the United States taking it upon itself to refashion the political order for 30 million people. Obviously the Iraq War was at the high end on the scale of ambition -- and hubris -- and not all situations in the region entail such a monumental effort. But the broader point stands: the line between cause and effect in statecraft is neither straight nor simple.

So I’d pose some questions in response. What was the failure in the Arab Spring, lack of warning from our intelligence community?  Perhaps, but would we have handled things differently if we had more advance warning?  One critique has been over the lack of a consistent position. Do we really think it would’ve been wise to respond the same way to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria? Looking back to the transitions in the old East Bloc in the late-80s, the first President Bush got high marks for not messing things up, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that. Then in terms of the no-fly zone and military aid now being debated for Syria, how confident are we that it will dislodge Assad or protect the populace, rather than bolstering extremist elements? And can we draw a clear limit on these steps and not slide into to doing more than we originally intended?

What I’m really trying to highlight are the difficult choices and trade-offs. The United States does have a lot of influence in the Middle East and around the world. We just need to be conscientious in how we exert that influence, and I think our public discourse on foreign policy often isn’t realistic about our options.

James Stafford: What would you categorize as the biggest foreign policy blunder of the US in the past 5 years, and why?

David Shorr: In Afghanistan it took us too long to drop the counterinsurgency approach. The advocates of a counterterror approach had it right, and US forces were fighting the wrong -- and deadlier -- fight until the mistake was eventually recognized.

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