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Iain Murray

If the last Democratic presidential nominee had any sort of signature issue, it was global warming. Al Gore told us many times that global warming is “potentially the most dangerous environmental problem facing mankind, with consequences second only to nuclear war.” He went so far as to warn us of the perils of warming back in January 2004, on the coldest day New York has seen in decades. Yet his successor, John Kerry, is strangely reticent on global warming. It is not easy to work out where John Kerry and John Edwards stand on the issue.

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One of Vice President Gore’s more questionable achievements on global warming was the negotiation of the Kyoto protocols on climate change, which would restrict the developed world’s use of fossil-fuel energy to levels around those of 1990. There are two major problems with this approach. The first is that everyone agrees that it will do virtually nothing to reduce global temperatures (a quarter of one degree Fahrenheit reduction in the expected temperature for 2100).

The other is that these caps won’t really be a problem for our European competitors. France (by relying on nuclear power), Britain (by switching to natural gas from coal), and Germany (by closing down its creaking East German industries) were all well on the way to meeting their targets when they were negotiated. The developing world was exempted from the caps: China and India are increasing their carbon-dioxide emissions hand over fist. Only America will suffer economically from the protocols, which is perhaps what the European negotiators had in mind while Gore was dreaming about his role as planetary savior.

Fortunately, the U.S. Senate realized that Kyoto was going to handicap the U.S. economy. In a stunning display of bipartisan unity, it voted 95-0 to express the sense of the Senate that the U.S. should not sign any protocol that excluded caps on developing nations or that would seriously damage the economy of the United States. Despite Kyoto violating both those requirements. Al Gore’s team went ahead and signed the treaty anyway. Hardly surprising, then, that President Clinton never submitted the treaty to the Senate for ratification. One of the 95 senators who voted against Al Gore’s approach was John Kerry.

This is presumably why the Democratic National platform this year makes no mention of Kyoto. A central feature of the 2000 platform has now been quietly dropped.

So where do the Democratic candidates stand on the subject? It seems that even the Kerry-Edwards campaign doesn’t know. This summer, it seemed that they had at last come to a conclusion. The campaign issued a document aimed at alleviating West Virginian concerns about losing coal-mining jobs. It includes the words, “John Kerry and John Edwards believe that the Kyoto Protocol is not the answer. The near-term emission reductions it would require of the United States are infeasible, while the long-term obligations imposed on all nations are too little to solve the problem. Unlike the current administration, John Kerry and John Edwards will offer an alternative to the Kyoto process that leads the world toward a more equitable and effective answer, while preserving coal miners’ jobs.” Case closed, it would seem. Kerry and Edwards oppose Kyoto.

Not so fast. On August 24, the Journal Times of Racine, Wisconsin, published an account of John Edwards’s visit to the town the day before. According to the paper, Edwards “lamented” America’s failure to join the Kyoto treaty. “The last thing this president should have done was walk away from Kyoto,” he told the audience. This is the line that John Kerry took in his brief mention of the treaty during the presidential debates, when he treated the issue more as a foreign policy, negotiating matter, rather than as an environmental issue.

So, according to the Kerry-Edwards campaign the last thing the president should have done is walk away from something they believe is not the answer, which places “infeasible” demands on the United States and to which they will offer an as yet unspecified alternative. Moreover, if alarmists like Al Gore are to be believed, any effective alternative will have to reduce global use of fossil fuels more than Kyoto. The approach is not so much confused as barely credible.

The Bush administration’s stance, by the way, is only marginally more coherent. The president has theoretically opposed American involvement in Kyoto since early 2001, but America continues to send vast armies of bureaucrats to the regular Kyoto conferences and the nation’s signature remains on the treaty.

The fact is that the environment has been a non-factor in the presidential contest, despite the alarmists’ best efforts. This has meant that the Democratic candidates have got away with their doublespeak. If they really believe the Gore-era notion that rising temperatures form such a threat that we should take Kyoto-style drastic action to curtail fossil-fuel use, they should say so. If, on the other hand, they believe that Kyoto-style drastic action is too big a threat to American jobs and prosperity, they should say that instead. Saying both will fool no one.

Iain Murray is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in the debate over climate change and the use and abuse of science in the political process.



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