Newsreal: Still in the balance

The Kyoto treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may be 'historic,' and may even pay political dividends for America's chief negotiator, Al Gore. But the loophole-studded agreement may not be nearly enough to rescue the planet.

Published December 12, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

"A historic landmark in environmental protection."

That's what Philip E. Clapp, the president of the National Environmental Trust, called the global warming treaty signed in Kyoto Thursday. His comment is particularly notable since Clapp, one of the most influential environmentalists in Washington, has for months been fiercely accusing the White House of betraying its green rhetoric. He even helped dream up the recent advertisements in New Hampshire showing Vice President Al Gore's book, "Earth In the Balance," with the taunt stamped across the cover, "Withdrawn by Author?"

But let's grant that the treaty obligating the United States and other industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions overall by approximately 5 percent by 2012 is indeed historic. The question is, what kind of history will the treaty make? Will our children look back on it as the beginning of a successful international effort to avoid a world of killer droughts, rising sea levels and mass species extinctions? Or will they condemn it as too little, too late -- a collection of well-meaning but loophole-ridden pledges whose inadequacies were papered over by self-congratulatory statements from politicians like Gore and President Clinton, both of whom will be out of office before the treaty's commitments come due?

There is a vast distance between what sounds bold in today's political climate and what the biosphere demands that we do to preserve it as a living entity. Sure, negotiators went nights without sleep to come up with an agreement. And yes, they could not be blind to the limitations imposed by the conflicting political and economic realities of the countries they represented. But in a larger sense, that is all irrelevant. The planet is indifferent to how hard it is for humans to reduce production of greenhouse gases -- indeed to whether we even continue to dwell on this earth. We either do what is necessary or reap the consequences.

Needless to say, the political spin coming out of the White House in the wake of Kyoto will not be dwelling on these uncomfortable facts. Rather, we will hear about the courageous leadership Clinton and Gore have shown on this issue. And it's true, the U.S. government's position shifted significantly at Kyoto, from a goal of stabilizing emissions at 1990 levels by 2012 to reducing them by 7 percent below 1990 levels. That's not as good as Europe, which is committed to an 8 percent reduction, but better than Japan, which opted for 6 percent.

The shift also meant staring down the fossil fuel lobby, which wanted no agreement at all, as well as congressional Republicans, who have sworn that no such treaty will pass the Senate. All of which will produce plenty of the political squabbles the inside-the-Beltway crowd revels in, especially as the 2000 presidential election gets under way. Gore, the presidential heir-presumptive, will not be popular with the giant oil and auto industries -- not to mention incurring the wrath of segments of organized labor, led by the United Mine Workers.

But Gore is stuck with the environmental issue, whether he likes it or not, and he's smart enough about the job-creating potential of energy efficient and renewable energy technologies to make this a political winner for him -- if he grabs the political nettles and makes a strong case (as he did in his book) for treating environmental protection as a jobs program that makes money for everyone.

But if Gore wins, what about the planet? United Nations scientists have said we must cut greenhouse emissions by 60 to 80 percent from 1990 levels if we are to have a fair chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. That's very much more than the 5 percent cut pledged in Kyoto. And if you read the fine print, much of that reduction could turn out to be, literally, hot air. Bonizella Biagini, a scientists with Climate Action Network Europe, points out that under the emissions trading system insisted upon by the Clinton administration, the U.S. could buy the right not to reduce its own emissions by giving money to Russia, whose post-Communist collapse closed so many dirty factories that it is considered, under the agreement, to have a surplus of emissions to sell.

This scam was strenuously denounced by European governments and activist groups alike, and the details remain to be negotiated. But if loopholes like that are the necessary price of this agreement, then get ready, earthlings: It's still going to get pretty hot around here.

By Mark Hertsgaard

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Al Gore Bill Clinton Environment Global Warming United Nations White House