Politics & Policy

“Fatally Flawed”

Key players in the climate-change debate are coming around to Bush's position.

“No to Bush, Yes to Kyoto” reads a slogan adorning the credentialing lanyards draped around the necks of several delegates and journalists here at the United Nations’ tenth annual climate-change conference (COP 10). But the U.S. president is an odd choice for a villain. A more accurate reflection of what’s happening on the ground would be the slogan, “Yes to Bush, No to Kyoto.”

The Kyoto Protocol–the global treaty drafted to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in order to prevent global warming–is set to go into effect early next year. It will do so, much to the chagrin of many European bureaucrats and green activists, without the participation of the United States. Early in his first term, President Bush labeled the treaty “fatally flawed” and announced the U.S. would not participate in its schedule of forced emissions reductions.

President Bush rejected Kyoto for a few simple reasons. First, it would impose significant economic damage on the American economy (a Clinton administration report on the costs of Kyoto put the tab at $300 billion per year). Second, the reduction targets and timetables were impractical from a technological perspective. Third, the treaty exempted developing economies such as India and China from any restrictions even though their emissions are rising rapidly. Instead, the Bush team under Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham charted a different course, which involved investment in basic research, technology transfer to poor countries, and bilateral agreements.

Critics cried foul at President Bush’s “unilateral” decision and questioned his motives, saying he was ignoring scientific evidence and rewarding fossil-fuel producers and users who supported him politically. It’s too bad the critics focused on the administration’s alleged motives and not its arguments. As it turns out, several key players in the climate-change debate are starting to come around to President Bush’s view.

On the first day of the conference, a group of developing countries, including China, announced that they would not commit to any specific emissions reductions in the future. Gao Feng, a top official in the Chinese foreign ministry, boldly stated: “We are a developing country, we’re not yet making international commitments…. We will continue to attend to our energy needs. We will need to increase our energy consumption for the next 30 to 50 years.”

In an important forthcoming book on energy trends, The Bottomless Well, Peter Huber of the Manhattan Institute and Mark Mills, a former consultant to the White House Science Office under President Reagan, explain developing country demand. “How…can anyone responsibly favor the burning of more hydrocarbons?” they ask. “The short answer is that, for most people, the only practical alternative today is to burn carbohydrates [wood, biomass], and that’s much worse.”

The developing nations have been bolstered by an uncomfortable fact for Kyoto supporters. Several Kyoto participants, including most European nations, will not meet their stated emissions-reduction targets. Data from the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that European emissions will grow rapidly, increasing by as much as 25 percent by 2030. Several Kyoto signatories in Europe are already 20 to 30 percent above their emissions targets. If the Europeans can’t drastically reduce their emissions, developing-country representatives reasoned, they have little reason to make similar pledges.

Then on Monday of this week, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, a key Kyoto cheerleader and a player in climate-change negotiations for years, issued a new report, “Climate Data: Insights and Observations.” A co-author of the report, Jonathan Pershing of the World Resources Institute, said, “We are beginning to see more research on adaptation strategies in response to climate change.” Adaptation means having the capacity to handle climate changes of any kind, and organizations like Pew are beginning to focus more on adaptation–as opposed to mitigation–in part because the emissions reductions called for in Kyoto are too costly and technologically infeasible.

This is a sensible move by Pew. The focus on adaptation to climate change–whether that change is human influenced or not–will be a boon to poor countries around the world. These countries are most vulnerable to climate changes because they lack the wealth and infrastructure to handle hazardous events such as heat waves, cold spells, hurricanes, and floods. A new appreciation for boosting developing-country adaptive capacity, and a new respect for the tools that make it possible–such as free trade, property rights, and the rule of law–are welcome developments.

Lastly, at a forum on Tuesday, Italian environment minister Corrado Clini admitted to Kyoto’s huge structural flaws and its current inability to deal adequately with the challenges posed by climate changes. Acknowledging the growing global need for secure energy resources, particularly by poor countries hoping to raise their living standards, Clini argued that “a much broader long-term strategy, and much more global effective measures, than those within the Kyoto Protocol, are needed, involving both developed and emerging economies.”

In other words, the Kyoto Protocol is “fatally flawed.”

Nick Schulz is editor of TechCentralStation.com.

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