TCS Daily

Kyoto Is Still Doomed

By James K. Glassman - July 25, 2001 12:00 AM

BONN -- A last-minute deal yesterday managed to avert another disaster for backers of the Kyoto Protocol. Last November, talks in The Hague collapsed over how to implement the treaty. Then, in March, President Bush, following the lead of the U.S. Senate, rejected Kyoto as "fatally flawed."

What saved the protocol yesterday in Bonn were concessions to Japan and other countries that had complained of the high cost of simply cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. These nations wanted to use forests and farmlands -- "sinks" that suck carbon dioxide out of the air -- as well as emissions trading to meet their treaty obligations. Of course, these were precisely the changes that Frank Loy, the Clinton administration's top negotiator, had asked for at The Hague. He got a pie in his face, both figuratively and literally, for his efforts. In Bonn, faced with failure, the Europeans caved.

Doomed Treaty

But it remains to be seen whether Kyoto will ever go into effect. So far, with the exception of Romania, no European country has ratified the treaty -- and, after enduring long, teeth-gnashing days among the environmentalists at the last two climate-change conferences, I strongly suspect the agreement will never be implemented.

Why? Well, European politicians aren't stupid. They are merely cynical. A non-agreement helps them much more than an agreement, which, without U.S. participation, would put them at a big economic disadvantage to the Americans. And for what? Not to save the planet.

Despite plenty of research, when it comes to climate, we still know very little. We do know that the surface temperature of the earth has warmed by one degree Fahrenheit over the past century, but we also know that most of the rise occurred in the early 1900s, long before the big increase in carbon dioxide emissions from cars and power plants. Meanwhile, satellites have found no atmospheric warming over the past 20 years.

Worries about the future are based on primitive computer models that can't even describe current conditions accurately. And a special panel of the National Academy of Sciences used the word "uncertain" 43 times in 28 pages last month in a review of the state of the science.

Tentative findings are a pretty thin reed on which to rest an emissions-reduction policy which President Clinton's own Energy Department estimated would reduce America's gross domestic product by as much as 4.3% annually.

Most of the world's policy makers are well aware of the shaky foundation and high cost of Kyoto. They also know that global warming, if it exists at all, won't become a problem for another 50 years or so. So why do the Europeans oppose a high-tech shield against a real threat -- nuclear-tipped missiles launched by mistake or by rogue nations -- while they embrace expensive steps against theoretical global warming? Here are three answers:
  • Politics. Remember that key European governments are coalitions in which Social Democrats have a plurality of legislators but need the Green Party to form a majority, and the Greens usually get the environmental ministry. Under this setup, mainstream politicians, worried about their coalitions falling apart, are happy to pay the Greens lip-service.
In addition, Kyoto, as a treaty that tells people how they can live, is the last gasp of Europe's authoritarian left. Many in Europe are not only comfortable with such restrictions, they like imposing them. Except when it comes to running topless advertising on television, the true liberal tradition does not run deep, and socialism retains its popularity. Europeans have not had many chances lately to impose their moral will on others -- especially not on Americans -- but Kyoto is a big one, not to be neglected.
  • Economics. In 1997, signing Kyoto over the objection of the unanimous Senate, Vice President Al Gore got taken to the cleaners. The treaty was rigged in favor of the Europeans. At heart, Kyoto is as an economic roadblock -- like the rejection of the General Electric-Honeywell merger -- built to trip U.S. competition.
The Europeans resent cowboy capitalism. They resent that Americans work long hours, take their laptops to the beach, attract the best and brightest immigrants. Europe has its own comfortable lifestyle, with six-week vacations (just try to find a good restaurant around Bonn that's open in July) and a culture that largely disdains entrepreneurship. That's their choice, but there are costs. One is that Europe has lost leadership to the U.S. in virtually every business sector.

One way to fight back is to impose higher costs on the U.S. economy than on their own. That was the charm of Kyoto. Europeans can meet their greenhouse-gas emissions limits under a "bubble" -- that is, all of Europe gets credit for the large reductions in carbon dioxide that occurred in the 1990s in Britain (which switched from coal to gas for economic reasons, largely because of North Sea finds) and in Germany (which benefits from the post-reunification shutdown of inefficient, mainly coal-fired factories in the former East Germany). As a result, Europe reduced its overall emissions between 1990 and 1999 by 4%, toward a target of 8% below 1990 levels. The U.S., with a target for reductions of 7%, has increased its emissions 30%.
  • Romanticism. There is something frightening about the brand of environmentalism that many Europeans embrace. It is not a wide-open-spaces kind of American environmentalism but a romanticism-in-the-Bavarian-woods kind of European environmentalism.
Evil Multinationals

This impulse is driven not just by anti-Americanism but by paranoia. We Americans have our own sources of paranoia, embracing conspiracy theories about presidential-assassination plotters and Wall Street bankers. For Europeans, however, paranoia has its roots in Rousseauian musings about noble savages and human civilization as a destructive force. The fault lies, as always, with evil multinationals based in the U.S., the purveyors of Coca-Cola, Big Macs and big oil. Kyoto is meant to strike a blow against this kind of progress.

Don't get me wrong. The impulse to make the air and water cleaner is a decent one. It is an impulse that the U.S. has followed, generally with success. Europe has made good progress, too, but with Kyoto, it is rushing beyond sound science into the realm of radical mysticism. Will this mysticism drive the Europeans to go it alone, despite harm to their own economies? I doubt it seriously. Having had their bluff called by a courageous American president, the Europeans, steeped in hypocrisy, will finally sit down to talk sense.

TCS Daily Archives