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By James K. Glassman - November 13, 2001 12:00 AM

"The Kyoto Protocol is saved." So announced Olivier DeLeuze, head of a delegation from the European Union at the meeting of representatives from about 170 nations who gathered in exotic Marrakech, Morocco to decide what to do about the earth's climate.

Again, the subject was the Kyoto Protocol, which requires industrialized countries to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions below 1990 levels. And after two weeks of deliberations among those countries participating in Kyoto, a deal on many of the particulars was reached. Fortunately, for America and for the world, the United States is not a party to the treaty.

In a resolution four years ago, the Senate voted 95-0 to reject any climate treaty that would do "serious harm" to the U.S. economy. Kyoto would certainly do that. According to a study by President Clinton's Energy Department, implementing the treaty would reduce our GDP by three to four percentage points, and the cost of gasoline and utilities would rise by $2,500 per family. Al Gore signed Kyoto anyway, but Bill Clinton never submitted it for ratification. In March, President Bush made the U.S. rejection official, calling Kyoto "fatally flawed."

Since then, the United States has been under enormous pressure- especially from European nations, which face a much lighter burden under Kyoto than does the U.S.-to do something about global warming. Bush says that drastically cutting carbon dioxide emissions, produced in the burning of all fossil fuels, is far too high a price to pay for a problem that exists so far only in unreliable computer models. He wants more research.

But research, while necessary, is not sufficient. The administration should consider a new approach, an approach that could be expanded-especially in this new age of terrorism-to become a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy. America's focus over the next years shouldn't be carbon dioxide, but poverty.

First, some science: Throughout the earth's history-long before the appearance of humans-the planet has been heating and cooling in cycles. Over the past century, surface temperatures have risen 1 degree Fahrenheit, an increase that has probably caused more good than harm. The unresolved question is how much of this slight warming is the result of human CO2 emissions and how much is natural-perhaps produced by variations in solar energy. Kyoto seeks to slash human emissions, but even if the computer models are right the effects of such expensive cutbacks on temperature will be tiny.

But Kyoto is more than a scientific prescription. It is a distinct political, social, and economic vision. Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish scientist who says he once held "left-wing Greenpeace views," writes in his important new book The Skeptical Environmentalist that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the United Nations advisory group on the subject) is "using global warming as a springboard for other, wider policy goals." The IPCC, Lomborg writes, wants "a society which is less resource-oriented, less industrialized, less commercialized, less production-oriented.... It is important to realize that the discussion is no longer primarily about energy."

The U.S. should offer its own political, social, and economic vision for the future-a program to reduce global poverty. What does that have to do with Kyoto? Plenty. To respond to any environmental calamity-warming or cooling, floods or droughts-nations need the resilience that comes from a strong economy. New irrigation, dikes, transformed industries, can only be created with wealth. The U.S. response to the European challenge on global warming, then, should be to promote economic growth in poverty-stricken nations-by far the most vulnerable to the dangers of any adverse change in climate.

Imagine the depressive global economic effects of a Kyoto regime that would reduce U.S. output alone by up to $400 billion a year. The natural course of economic development over the next 50 years will enrich countries that are currently poor, allowing them to cope with effects of climate change-if such change, human-induced or natural, occurs. Malaria-afflicted Malaysia, for instance, will become like healthy Singapore. But if economic growth is impeded, environmental and health progress will also stall. As its alternative to Kyoto, the U.S. should launch a program of economic and environmental aid to "aspiring" nations-those that protect entrepreneurship, reject statism, and accept democratic values. Mexico and India are prime candidates. We should enact nation-to-nation agreements, not another global treaty with all the posturing and bureaucracy that treaty making entails. And the emphasis must be on clean-energy sources.

Let the Europeans go their own way. Their leaders preach downsizing, small thinking, pain, and fear. The U.S. has more in common with aspiring Third World peoples, who know that the key to better health and a cleaner environment is economic growth-exactly what the grandees of Kyoto disdain.

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