Will Bush support the Kyoto Protocol?

Pressure here and abroad may leave him no choice.


Steve Kettmann
July 18, 2001 7:30PM (UTC)

Here's a prediction: Sometime in the next year, no matter how much it may run counter to his oilman's contempt for environmentalists, President Bush will change course and join the international effort to combat global warming. The stakes have become too high for Bush to continue to burn political capital so recklessly. His most likely approach will be to accept a watered-down version of the Kyoto Protocol he famously and hastily rejected earlier this year.

It didn't have to be this way for Bush. His many bewildering missteps and political miscalculations on environmental policy have already pointlessly eroded an already shaky public confidence. The same New York Times/CBS News poll that found Bush's job approval rating dipping to 53 percent late last month found that two-thirds of those polled, including a plurality of Republicans, believe that both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are "too beholden to oil companies." But that was just the start of the bad news for the administration: Only 39 percent of those polled approved of Bush's handling of the environment; more than half favored ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, which would impose targets on industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, even if nonindustrialized nations like China and India get off easy; and 72 percent believed immediate steps were necessary to fight global warming, rather than pausing for more study.

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It may be hard for Bush and his oil-industry friends to accept that environmental politics really matter, but they do. And in the end public opinion will force Bush into a full-scale repositioning in order to save himself from falling permanently out of step with the majority of the American people on the issue of global warming. What the Times/CBS News and other polls show is that the American people do care about global warming, and they see through the smoke-and-mirrors tactics the Bush administration has had the gall to package as an environmental policy.

As representatives of 175 nations were preparing to gather this week and next in Bonn, Germany, for yet another round of bruising, largely futile negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol, the Bush administration was busy making its own attempts to appear serious about the issue. On Friday, Bush announced several initiatives aimed at countering global warming in Washington. One of Bush's main proposals is a $14 million program to work with the government of El Salvador on forest preservation. And people claim Bush doesn't take global warming seriously!

OK, the administration also announced more money for more studies, including one NASA would conduct using advanced climate modeling. But the point is this: Both the American public and the world community agree that no matter what the details, global warming clearly is a problem -- one that deserves immediate action and not dithering, even if much of the doom-and-gloom scaremongering on the issue is misplaced.

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The chasm between Bush and his advisors and what the public and world leaders think about global warming has been apparent since March, when the administration first announced its outright rejection of the treaty. Some have argued that Bush deserves credit for his honesty in coming right out and staking out his true position (as opposed to his misleading campaign rhetoric about reducing carbon-dioxide emissions). But the administration has repeatedly shot itself in the foot over Kyoto.

First, the administration made its announcement the day German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder arrived at the White House for the first meeting of the two leaders. It was a humiliating greeting for Schroeder, who had told the press back home he was going to make an issue of global warming during his Washington visit.

German Environment Minister Juergen Trittin was anything but diplomatic in a speech last week. "We can't let the country with the biggest emissions of greenhouse gases escape responsibility for protecting the global climate," he cautioned.

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Back in March, when the international furor over Kyoto erupted, the Bush administration countered with two lines of defense: One was the argument that the foundations of the Kyoto Protocol were based on weak science. The other was that the administration needed time for a policy review to formulate its own approach to fighting global warming. Both of those arguments have collapsed completely.

A long-awaited National Academy of Sciences report commissioned by the White House to review the current science on global warming found that global temperatures are indeed rising and that "human activity" is a factor in climate change. The study's release effectively eliminated one of the most popular canards promoted by critics of the Kyoto Protocol: that the scientists who have repeatedly warned of global warming have used flawed scientific methodology to draw their conclusions.

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At least in its public statements, the Bush administration has devoted far more time to selling its energy plan than dealing with Kyoto. Bush's relentless "energy crisis" alarms bring to mind Jimmy Carter in his cardigan, turning down the heat in the White House. Nonetheless, the energy plan is not without its constructive elements. The left may hate nuclear power, but if the planet is in such grave danger of turning into an ice-cap-melting hothouse (read: flood, famine, apocalypse, etc.), then every option that reduces emissions ought to be explored. But as for coming up with any framework for moving past Kyoto, the administration appears to have done close to nothing -- and the Bush administration's high-level working groups on the subject have reportedly not even held all of their scheduled meetings.

Worse yet, Bush has failed to grasp that not only does Kyoto not have to be a bugaboo of this adminstration, it actually represents a political opportunity. Just as it's often said that only Richard Nixon, famous for his Manichean-world anti-communism, could go to Communist China without being branded a pinko tool, a politician like Bush -- seen as being at the service of the oil industry -- could make a real impact if he decided to embrace the treaty.

"Bush could end up being for global warming the equivalent of what Nixon was for China relations," said Per Peterson, chairman of the nuclear engineering department at the University of California at Berkeley.

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That's why it seemed shortsighted of Bush to cite as his main reason for rejecting Kyoto the argument that it could be bad for U.S. industry. What if that turned out not to be the case? Let's presume for a moment that the Europeans, Japanese and others can convince the Bush administration that, in fact, Kyoto-style emission reduction would not be economically damaging and might even increase profits. Would Bush then have a leg to stand on if he continued to oppose it?

"The Kyoto Protocol may not hurt the U.S. economy if the rules are very favorable to the United States," Yusuke Shindo, a Japanese global-warming expert who consults with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, explained last week in Berlin.

The protocol would permit nations to trade credits for emissions as part of reaching their targets. Thus, credits could be bought and sold by industrial and developing nations alike -- potentially at great profit for the seller. It would also provide companies with incentives to innovate in order to meet the targets -- leading to greater economic efficiencies and increasing profits. In that sense, at least, it offers a free-market solution to the global-warming problem.

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"As soon as Europe goes ahead with the protocol, I think we'll see that climate change is a very profitable business," Hermann Ott, head of climate policy at Germany's Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, said last week. Ott's comments were predicated on a scenario in which Europe ratifies without the United States, but with Japan and enough other countries to reach the required figure of 55 percent of the industrialized countries' emissions necessary to implement the treaty.

A recent report from the World Wide Fund for Nature explored the same scenario. The fund's report concluded that European industry could get a head start on developing new technologies to cut emissions if it observed the Kyoto Protocol. It said the European Union countries could reach 85 percent to 95 percent of the Kyoto targets without hurting their economic competitiveness. The same group issued another report suggesting that, for similar reasons, Japan would actually see an increase in GDP if it ratified the protocol and it moved forward.

Of course, there can be no guarantees that such economic prognostications will come true. But the American people have made clear they do not accept Bush's argument that potential economic sacrifice is a good reason to delay action on global warming.

The convergence of U.S. public opinion and European opinion is worth considering. It goes without saying that Americans are quick to dismiss -- and sneer at -- Europeans when they offer opinions they don't want to hear. But the media attention devoted to declining U.S.-European relations since Bush rejected Kyoto in March seems to have added urgency to the feeling of many Americans that global warming matters.

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In Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., the public majority also has an ally on Capitol Hill. It was inevitable that the Vermont senator would raise the specter of global warming in his first speech as chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. But Jeffords did not just bang the drum idly. He banged the drum like he meant it, declaring the fight against global warming his top priority as committee chairman. In practical Washington terms, that means: This political problem for the administration is not going away. Jeffords, the man whose defection from the Republican Party lost Bush a majority in the Senate that would have made it much easier for him to push through his more controversial policy proposals and judicial appointments, will make sure to keep the topic in the headlines, where it can be counted on to inflict more damage on Bush.

"There's a real perception among all the people of this world that we need to do something about the pollution, or else this world is going to change rapidly," Jeffords said. "The urgency is pretty evident now." Or as United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan put it Friday in Berlin: "There is enough scientific evidence to wake us up and let us take action. We don't need to wait for perfect science to be able to act." Annan might as well have held up a poster with a picture of Bush and the words "That Means YOU!"

Once again, the timing of events does not benefit the Bush administration. Bush arrives in Europe on Friday for another Group of Eight meeting -- this time in Genoa, Italy, where as many as 150,000 protesters are expected. Bush did somewhat better than expected, by most report cards, on his first visit to Europe, but it will be tougher for the president to evade criticism during this trip, which coincides with the Kyoto negotiations. In particular, he's likely to hear some heated words about what many in Europe see as a U.S. effort to sabotage the Bonn talks.

Margot Wallstrom, the European Union's environment commissioner, was the highest-profile official to specifically accuse the United States of putting pressure on other countries in the so-called umbrella group, which includes Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, to abandon support for Kyoto.

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Sergei Roginko, a global-warming specialist and head of the Institute of Europe in Moscow, was even blunter in his remarks in Berlin. "George W. Bush promised at the Göteborg meeting not to interfere with this meeting in Bonn," Roginko said. "This is not the case. What the United States is trying to do is create another group of states that can be taken from the protocol."

One of the curious misperceptions kicking around in recent days and weeks is the prediction that this Bonn meeting could "kill" the Kyoto Protocol. It's generally accepted as a given that the European bureaucrats who work the halls in Brussels and Strasbourg have an almost superhuman capacity for talking an issue to death without taking action. This is probably natural, given the many nationalities, languages, cultures and political parties represented in the E.U. But the chances of them throwing up their hands in Bonn and declaring the death of the Kyoto process is all but nil. Instead, it seems clear that serious negotiation of the protocol will now be kicked forward to a meeting scheduled for this fall in Morocco.

That's why the intense focus on the Japanese role in recent days is really just a red herring. Japan made very clear last week that it would not articulate its position on Kyoto until after the Bonn meetings. Japan does not want to ratify without the United States, and it's going to hold out to the bitter end before making a decision.

Media accounts have been dismissive of the Japanese claim that it hopes to play the role of last-minute savior for the Kyoto process, helping persuade Bush to cooperate. But the notion should not be rejected out of hand. Like the United States, Japan believes many of the details of the Kyoto mechanism need to be adjusted -- and it agrees with the U.S. position that it is unfair for nonindustrialized countries to face only voluntary targets on reducing emissions.

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"Don't forget," said Wuppertal Institute's Ott, "it was Japan who attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor -- some of us have seen the movie -- and in the end was completely defeated. Since then, it has been very reluctant to go its own way from the United States. But at some point countries have to become self-sufficient. I think this really is the first time that the European states are up and saying to the United States, 'No, we are not going to let ourselves be led.'"

Global-warming politics may in the end serve as a kind of signal moment in a shift in U.S.-European relations. Perhaps those relations are not so much "strained" as transformed. Many in Europe feel that the time has come for a new transatlantic relationship in which greater European confidence (despite the pathetic performance of the euro) puts it on something closer to equal footing with the United States. That does not change the fact that U.S. might is unrivaled, but in the increasingly interconnected world community, with its increasingly interconnected media cycles, the United States will find that it sometimes has to listen to its allies.

That time will come soon enough for the Bush administration on global warming.


Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."

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