This weekend Mr. Fukuda took this message to the World Economic Forum in Davos.
(Incidentally, this week’s meeting brought to mind “Ringing of Revolution,” a song by radical folk singer Phil Ochs — nothing like a gala fest of the high and mighty on Swiss mountaintop while in the outside world the world economic system as we know it comes crashing down.)
In his speech at a closed meeting, Mr. Fukuda reiterated that climate change will be the main theme of the summit, warned darkly about the consequences of climate change, and explained his government’s three-part approach on climate change policy — (1) a post-Kyoto framework, (2) international environmental cooperation, and (3) technological innovation.
All well-intentioned, all important, but ultimately mostly irrelevant, for a couple reasons.
First, as former UN official Shashi Tharoor, who attended the Fukuda address, wrote in his Davos Diary at Foreign Policy‘s Passport blog, “…The number of empty seats at the half-dozen tables around the PM testified to the declining salience of Japan, a country that two decades ago was seen as the world’s economic powerhouse and, bluntly, no longer is.” Mr. Fukuda and other Japanese officials speak before international audiences, everyone nods in agreement, and then moves on to more important matters and actors. Japan’s good intentions and clever ideas are not enough to make the rest of the world pay attention.
Beyond Japan’s undersized international presence, there is a much more concrete reason for Japan’s environmental leadership being stillborn: forcing the world to rethink its carbon emissions means in practical terms forcing the US (its most significant ally) and China (its largest trading partner) to change their economic systems drastically. Does anyone seriously think that Japan or any other one country will be able to make this happen? Change will happen when both the US and China change domestically and become willing to make radical changes in how they use energy, in the process taking the lead internationally on climate change.
Japan might play a niche role in developing energy-efficient technologies and sharing them with the world, but I have a hard time envisioning Japan in the driver’s seat, forcing its partners to make substantial compromises that will enable progress on reducing carbon emissions.