There's a big, stupid reason the US will probably break its climate change promise

Smog over NYCLucas JacksonSmog settling over a New York City on a summer day.

The United States will cut emissions 80% by 2050. We promise. We
really really mean it this time.

Sure, we’ve known for decades that the gases we pump into the atmosphere are heating the planet. And yeah, it’s too late now to prevent a major shock to our climate. But it’s not just us spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And we’re going to change. Really.

At the 2016 international Paris Agreement to combat climate change, the Obama administration committed the country to the goal of an 80% reduction by 2050. Hillary Clinton, the person who seems far and away most likely to become president in 2017, has made it part of her campaign platform.

Here’s the thing though: There’s a good chance America can’t pull it off.

That’s not because it’s technologically or economically impossible. It’s because our political system has become too fractured and disorganized to address climate change in the measured, multi-decadal way necessary to get the job done. On its face, that’s a pretty stupid reason to go back on a major international commitment. But experts across the political spectrum agree that’s likely what will happen.

A study by the Columbia University economist Geoffrey Heal, which I explore more deeply here, found the total cost of the project would likely fall somewhere in between the war in Afghanistan and World War II. And we have 34 years to do it, so the annual cost would be just a small fraction of gross domestic product.

But Heal’s study relies on the assumption that we live in a functioning society that can competently organise itself to address complex challenges over long time scales.

“We’d need a sort of a carefully thought out policy that was laid down,” Heal told Business Insider, “establishing some clear expectation of continuity in the policy field over quite a long period of time in order to mobilize the kind of money that would be needed here.”

We’d need a sort of a carefully thought out policy that was laid down, establishing some clear expectation of continuity in the policy field over quite a long period of time.

The reality is, our politics is more polarised than ever, which makes that kind of mobilization and long-term planning difficult on any front. And climate science has become a political football.

In its party platform, the Republican party writes: “Climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue. This is the triumph of extremism over common sense, and Congress must stop it.” The Democrats’ party platform, which addresses climate change at length, comes down on the opposite side: “Climate change is an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time.”

The consequence of that discord is that our existing climate policy already doesn’t work that well.

“Some incentives [for developing green energy], like the production tax credit for renewable energy, have been on and off and on and off. It is very disorienting to people who think about investing in this area,” Heal said.

Myron Ebell, an energy and environmental policy analyst — and avowed climate-science sceptic — with the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute think tank, told Business Insider that a comprehensive program to drastically reduce US emissions would meet major political opposition.

“I think Obama has gone about as far as you can go in terms of twisting the current regulatory structure to try to do things,” Ebell said. “At some point Congress would have to vote for this kind of program, and I think it’s a long way in the future if at all. I have my doubts that it will ever happen, but right now you can say it’s several Congresses away.”

Ebell said that political “friction” — from opponents ranging from national lawmakers to local landowners objecting to power lines and windmills — will most likely add costs at every stage of a major national-energy overhaul.

Heal agrees that politics and planning could be a major hurdle.

“I don’t think anyone has thought through in any detail what it would take to mobilize the amount of money that we’re talking about here,” he said.

But he while he said the plan is highly unlikely to succeed, there’s some solace to take in the country moving in this direction.

“I’d say I’m moderately optimistic in the sense that [the costs of clean technology] will certainly come down over time,” he said. “Whether we’ll get an 80% reduction by 2050 I’m not sure. But I think we can certainly get a 50% reduction by 2050 without massive amounts of expenditure or stress.”

“And if costs come down and if technology is developed in the right way, we could see 60% per cent or a 70%. I think 80% is tough but it’s doable. And I think we’re likely to get quite a lot of the way there.”

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