Hard Target Hypocrisy?

For a long while now, I’ve watched the US reaction to the global warming debate with real interest. Going back as far as 2001, I’ve been fascinated by our absolute refusal to join international conversations about reducing carbon emissions—even as science continues to prove time and again that carbon emissions must be reduced in order to prevent environmental degradation…and possible destruction.

While the rest of the modern world continues to take great strides towards holding themselves accountable for serious action around reducing emissions—consider that the EU has set the ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions by 20-30% of 1990 rates by 2020—-the US continues to sit on the sidelines, arguing that setting hard targets for emissions cuts is unfair to developed countries and that predicting the amount of carbon emitted by a growing economy 20 years into the future is simply impossible. 

Instead, we argue that hard targets should be set aside, replaced by vague statements about being "committed to" reductions and "negotiating improvements" over time.  Here’s what Harlan Watson—our chief negotiator on climate change—said yesterday in Bali at an international conference on climate change: "We don’t think it’s prudent or reasonable to start off with some set of numbers. That’s what negotiations are going to be for."

The reason this sits wrong in the pit of my stomach is that our government seems to have completely embraced hard targets for education, haven’t they?  After all, we’ve been told that "100% of our students" are going to be on grade level by 2014.   

We’ve been given specific targets for student growth for every year between now and then, too—and when we don’t meet those targets, we’re ridiculed in the press, called failures, and taken over by outside agencies. Despite working in a field that is easily as unpredictable as climate change, our government has no troubles setting hard targets for schools?

Starting off with "some set of numbers" didn’t seem to bother anyone when No Child Left Behind was passed. Coercive accountability was seen as the only way to get unresponsive schools to "shape up," and urgency was necessary because to wait any longer was morally wrong.

So why are hard targets appropriate for education, but not appropriate for fighting global warming?  Aren’t both issues equally important?   

Interesting, huh? 

Love to hear your thinking because I’m confused.

8 thoughts on “Hard Target Hypocrisy?

  1. Roger Sweeny

    “After all, we’ve been told that ‘100% of our students’ are going to be on grade level by 2014.”
    And the number of people who believe that target will be met are … exactly zero.
    Congress often passes laws with lofty goals and tons of loopholes, because the lofty goals are unrealistic. A large number of environmental laws have had this history.
    Of course, no one expects NCLB to accomplish its lofty goal. I would have liked more honesty but I’m hardly surprised.
    Kyoto is a lot like NCLB: lofty goals that will not be met, a lack of enforcement mechanisms, and a general good feeling by the people who came up with it that “we’re really doing something to solve the problem.”

  2. Roger Sweeny

    “While the rest of the modern world continues to take great strides towards holding themselves accountable for serious action around reducing emissions—consider that the EU has set the ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions by 20-30% of 1990 rates by 2020”
    By that standard, Americans have made great strides toward solving their weight problems. Every day, millions of them are setting ambitious goals of losing 20-30 or more pounds by the end of the year or the beginning of swimsuit season.
    Only two of the signatories of Kyoto have actually lived up to their treaty obligations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The rest aren’t even going in the right direction.
    When government representatives make fine sounding speeches with lofty goals but no realistic way to implement those goals, it means only slightly more than nothing.
    I wish the US representatives at these conferences would say, “Right now there is no way to significantly reduce emissions without reducing the standard of living of the well-off and condemning the poor to continuing poverty. Fortunately, climate models seem to show that the temperature rise in the next several decades will be small and something that we can cope with.
    “The only way we can stop global warming without hurting lots of people is to develop new ways of getting energy to people, ways that are environmentally friendly and not too expensive. For the next twenty years, that should be our focus.”

  3. Matt Johnston

    Mike,
    While I would agree that the federal government has no Constitutional right to interfere with education, it does have a “moral” right in that it moral to be concerned about the future of our children. But I admit that is being a bit snarky.
    I think the fact that the government has much more discretion over domestic policy, where the variables are better known, means that they set the hard numbers domestically. Witness for example the hard target numbers for gasoline efficiency just set for cars sold in America. (by the way does not those standards count?)

  4. Bob

    No, U.S. Federal government has not “… completely embraced hard targets for education …” Yes, teachers interpret NCLB as setting manditory standards. No, state and local education boards and other political bodies have the choice to meet or not Federal expectations in exchange for Federal money. Some schools in OR and elsewhere do not accept Fed funds, so continue to meet their own standards.
    It’s interesting that so many vocal teachers seem to reject external validity assessments of only some classroom instructional procedures and reject procedures that appear to result in learning that exceeds Federal requests.

  5. Mike

    Hi Bill:
    Hard targets are indeed inappropriate in education, particularly when imposed by the federal government, which has no Constitutional or moral business involving itself. The same is true of Global Warming, but for somewhat different reasons.
    Global warming–despite the assurance of Al Gore that it’s absolutely settled science, and that if we don’t spend untold trillions right now, we’re doomed, doomed I tell you!, and we should listen to him because he’s Al Gore–is not settled science. It is very far from settled science, and even Gore and his estranged ex-boss, Bill Clinton, declined to present the Kyoto Treaty to the Congress, knowing that it would have less than no chance of passage. They’ve sort of forgotten to mention that since, but history has a nasty way of popping up from time to time, call it an Inconvenient Truth.
    Until we can have real certainty on Global Warming, you know, the kind of certainty we had not that long ago on Global Cooling (I’m still shivering just waiting for that inevitable, man-caused ice age), perhaps it would be best to put that entire debate in the “in progress” category.

  6. Jake Savage

    I think Mike H is exactly right on the difference between the two. The government has coercive power over public schools, but not over the actions of other countries.
    Plans like Kyoto have a free rider problem. If everyone else signs on and adheres to the agreement, the country that doesn’t gains the benefits of decreased global warming while not paying the cost of lower economic growth. If nobody else adheres to the agreement, the country that does gains no benefits and loses the economic growth that all the others are enjoying.
    The same problem does not exist when the government forces schools to meet targets. It can withhold funding from those schools that do not meet the standards and schools can’t free ride on others’ success.

  7. Mike H

    Sorry, I guess you wanted more about the hypocrisy. I guess it’s because the government can impact our domestic issues more than global issues when other nations don’t play by international rules (China for example). Personally, I’d like to see consistency too, no KYOTO and no NCLB. Sorry for two posts.

  8. Mike H

    I just checked out Wikipedia, what’s interesting is that many of the European nations who signed onto Kyoto have had their CO emissions go up from 2000 to 2004 (it stops there) while the US had a stable 20.4 to 20.4 rate, with declines in between. France for example went from 6.0 to 6.2. Not a lot, but most of the EU nations have increased and we have decreased or been stable. I’m not sure what the 2005-2007 numbers would reveal, that could show a different pattern. So, my point being, just because they signed onto the treaty, doesn’t mean they are following it, and just because we didn’t, doesn’t mean we’re not reducing our numbers. I think the Kyoto vote in the US Senate in 1997 was 95-0. I’m hoping maybe this will now head us toward more nuclear power to help reduce our emissions.

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