Politics & Policy

Inconvenient Truths for Al Gore

Remember Kyoto?

With Al Gore’s new movie opening this week, there are some inconvenient truths its maker should consider: Gore himself has done incalculable harm to the cause of combating global warming. His efforts to call attention to the dangers of climate change may prove prescient but his policy prescriptions have been nothing short of disastrous.

Consider the facts: The Kyoto Protocol, which Gore personally negotiated for the United States, was a colossal mistake–a fundamentally flawed approach that has taken nearly a decade (and counting) to recover from. If ever a treaty was dead on arrival, it was Kyoto, given that the Senate had voted 95-0 against two of its essential elements before it was negotiated. (That vote rejected any treaty that would seriously harm our economy while exempting the developing world from any obligation to reduce its emissions–a sensible litmus test.) That didn’t stop Gore from agreeing to its terms, knowing full well that it would never be ratified–a remarkably cynical political move.

What’s wrong with signing an impractical treaty? A lot, actually. Kyoto stopped us from pursuing more realistic alternatives. Even now, Kyoto’s misconceptions haunt us: Having already agreed that the developing world need not reduce its (rapidly increasing) emissions of greenhouse gases, it will be hard to persuade those countries to reconsider. Yet without their participation, no limits on global emissions can be effective.

Before Kyoto, the world was seriously engaged in thinking through the challenge of climate change. That started in earnest after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, which committed the world to working together to avoid dangerous interference with the global climate. It left open the more difficult question of precisely what to do but it set the right goal, and for five years scientists, economists, engineers, and government officials struggled with that question. After Kyoto, that process largely ground to a halt.

Of course President Clinton never even tried to get the Senate to approve the treaty, and for seven years the rest of the industrialized world wrestled with ratification. A year ago, the Protocol finally came into effect–at least on paper. We have next to nothing to show for it. Canada is the latest country to admit (just this week) that it cannot meet its Kyoto targets; it wants to pursue voluntary measures when the Protocol expires in 2012. The rest of the participants aren’t doing much better: No country has actually made substantial reductions in its greenhouse gas emissions because of Kyoto, and many European countries will miss their targets by double digits. Moreover, those limits are only a small fraction of what many scientists think is needed to stabilize the climate.

The problem with meeting these targets is simple: the necessary technologies don’t exist. At best, Kyoto would mean spending a lot of money to accomplish very little. Kyoto-style targets may promote modest reductions in emissions today but they aren’t going to produce the research needed for fundamental technological breakthroughs that could slash overall global emissions. Short-term, modest targets aren’t incentives for ambitious long-term research.

After wasting almost a decade pursuing Al Gore’s answer to climate change, Kyoto’s failure is clear. The much-celebrated “trading” mechanism that was expected to cut the cost of compliance is barely functioning. Trading emissions credits works well when the technologies exist, such as smokestack “scrubbers” to remove sulfur dioxide. But greenhouse gases are another matter: There are so many sources of carbon dioxide, and so few affordable ways to get rid of it. Establishing an effective market for trading these credits is much more complicated than advocates ever imagined.

So, if not Kyoto, what? Environmentalists should thank President Bush for breathing new–albeit indignant–life into the stagnant climate-change debate when he announced in 2001 that he wouldn’t pursue ratification of Kyoto. New policy opportunities opened up and people went back to the creative drawing boards. We’re taking small steps in the right direction, but activists are more enamored with their politics–which dictate that anything that Bush supports must be wrong–than with spurring these nascent efforts on. Clinton and Gore continue to mislead Americans by telling us that the solutions are simple and cheap–all we need is political will to implement them. Nothing could be further from the truth: the answers to climate change are expensive and elusive; they will be found in the Los Alamos labs, not the halls of Congress.

The only way to make meaningful reductions in global greenhouse-gas emissions is to develop new clean energy and transportation technologies–and not just hybrid cars and windmills. Doing politically correct things like building solar panels would shave a few points off our total emissions, but only breakthrough technologies like hydrogen fuel cells will make real cuts possible. And their cost is the key: We can build fuel-cell cars now–for $1 million. When we figure out how to sell them for $30,000, we won’t need an international treaty to get people to buy them. Almost every major car company in the world is frantically trying to unlock that puzzle and–are you sitting down?–George W. Bush, the ex-oil man who once mocked Al Gore’s fascination with green cars, is pouring billions of federal dollars into the effort.

Bush has also spearheaded other efforts to develop clean energy technologies, such as the Asia-Pacific Partnership, which includes key developing countries such as China and India. Activists scorn these initiatives because they don’t require emissions reductions today, but in the long run they are our only hope. The real question is how to best advance this research–government labs, private sector R&D, or some combination? What’s the right level of funding, and the best way of organizing the research?

In the meantime there is one technology that could dramatically reduce America’s greenhouse-gas emissions–and yet environmentalists are fervently opposed to it. Al Gore doubts it has much potential. But the only cost-effective way we know right now to produce thousands of megawatts of zero-emissions electricity is nuclear power. America, of course, hasn’t built a new nuclear plant since Three Mile Island, but that’s going to change. Just how many plants are built, and how quickly, will depend in part on how fierce the environmental opposition is. Will Al Gore lead the way?

–Samuel Thernstrom is director of the W.H. Brady Program on Freedom and Culture at the American Enterprise Institute and managing editor of the AEI Press. He served as communications director for the White House Council on Environmental Quality in 2001–02.

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