During the Clinton Administration, Carol Browner and Larry Summers faced off on climate issues. Carol Browner worked with Vice President Gore and others to develop paths for moving forward toward a less carbon intensive economy. Summers undercut momentum forward with strenuous (misguided, poorly informed, stove-piped economic analysis) statements of concern. Summers “argued that the United States would risk damaging the domestic economy if it set overly ambitious goals for reducing carbon emissions.”
Larry Summers and Carol Browner are back, both working in the White House, and, sadly, it looks like their conflict is back. Again, it looks like Larry Summers (and his team) are working to hinder progress forward on climate issues.
The issue is complex, but extremely well discussed by David Sassoon at Solve Climate. In short:
1. HFCs, designed to replace CFCs in refrigerants, are far more serious green-house gases than CO2, up to 11,000 more impact per lb released into the atmosphere.
2. The Department of State, working with stakeholders (including the HFC manufacturer), had developed a path to use the Montreal Protocol (the system by which CFCs have been rapidly reduced throughout the global economy) to phase out HFCs.
Larry Summers has, however, thrown a wrench into a path agreed to throughout the interagency process for something the State Department hoped to bring to the international community next week.
We need to pause for a moment, HFCs matter. Just how much?
HFCs would add up to 25 times the current total U.S. emissions to the global burden by 2040, largely because of their use in ever greater numbers in the developing world.
They could effectively negate all reductions in CO2 currently being contemplated.
Why would Summers and his team step in to stop using what “Todd Stern, the United States’ chief climate negotiator, described the Montreal Protocol as “the most successful environmental treaty that we have,”"? (Stern, by the way, “listed the Montreal Protocol first among five building blocks for a successful international climate treaty to be negotiated in Copenhagen at the end of this year.”)
Evidently, in the White House session at which Summers’ staffer dropped the bombshell of opposition, the explanation was that HFCs should be part of an overall Cap & Trade program, not treated separately.
Maintaining their inclusion within the Kyoto basket of gases would help keep the price of carbon credits down, the economist argued, and would allow for greater economic efficiency by permitting the trading of one gas against another.
There are a huge range of problems and risks with Summers’ “greater economic efficiency” path:
1. This would likely lead to a slower reduction of overall GHG levels than if HFCs were handled under the successful Montreal Protocol.
2. Unlike CO2, HFCs aren’t a pollution. The problem is very much (near identical to) that with CFCs: this is a (highly) useful product that creates a problem that we didn’t necessarily realize. We need to develop and deploy alternatives, just as we did for CFCs.
3. A reasonable carbon price, under a Cap & Trade, would have a disproportionate cost impact on HFCs (remember that 11,000+ multiplier). The “Summers’ Path” would likely lead to $100s of additional costs … per refrigerator. (Really have to wonder whether Summers, secretly, sees himself in the role of writing copy for anti-science syndrome sufferers’ attacks on efforts to act to mitigate catastrophic climate change.)
4. Treating HFC (and other super GHGs) in this way could quite possibly (probably) foster tremendous cheating activities, as each ton of false HFC reductions could have $millions of value in the carbon market.
This is serious stuff that falls beneath the radar scope of 99.9% of us, yet which will have a real impact on our future prospects.
Senators Kerry and Boxer got wind of the bad White House meeting and weigh in with a letter to President Obama.
We understand that your administration is considering offering an amendment to the Montreal Protocol next week that would provide authority to regulate HFCs. We strongly support such an amendment.
Let’s hope that President Obama listens to them.
And, let’s hope that the Carol Browner - Larry Summers relationship doesn’t work out in the Obama Administration the way it did during the Clinton Administration. Quite literally, our future can’t afford that.
NOTE: See David’s excellent coverage of this issue:
State Department Climate Move Hits Snag at White House
- State Department Plans to Tap Montreal Protocol for Urgent Climate Duty
- Class of ‘Super GHGs’ Becoming Focus of Heightened Concern
- After 15 Year Delay, Green Refrigerator To Arrive in U.S. — Sort of
On Larry Summers, two relevant discussions:
- Warming Summers, discussing two 2007 Summers’ OPEDs about climate change.
Summers not sunny when it comes to developmental concepts, which discusses a rather controversial Summers’ memo. (These paragraphs Summers’ allies state are taken out of context, but the entire memo has not been made public to prove this point.