Published in the New Statesman, on 26th March 2001.
This month, President Bush declared war on the world’s efforts to tackle the increasingly urgent problem of climate change. Writing to Senator Chuck Hagel, a longtime leading wrecker of US climate change initiatives, Bush not only promised not to impose mandatory carbon dioxide reductions on power plants, he went out of his way to reiterate his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol and to challenge the science of climate change.
The unusually aggressive tone in which the president couched his decision has surprised many on both sides of the climate debate in Washington. During last year’s bitter election contest, he won praise from some American environmentalists when he made a firm promise to introduce mandatory controls on carbon dioxide emissions, wrong-footing Al Gore in the process.
This new decision, hastily reached in response to ferocious lobbying from business and his conservative base, came only two days after Christine Todd Whitman, his highly regarded administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, had reassured G8 environment ministers meeting in Trieste that the president would fulfil his campaign pledge to legislate to control carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
Coming so soon after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its third assessment report, which confirmed that the climate is changing more dramatically than previously thought, the president’s decision seems to fall into the same league as voting against the teaching of evolution. It also comes on the heels of Tony Blair’s promise that Britain would ratify the protocol before the tenth anniversary of the Earth Summit next year. Bush, it would seem, is recklessly inviting confrontation with one of his closest allies.
The president’s first breach of a campaign pledge has been greeted with enthusiasm by some business voices in the United States, where energy industry lobbyists have been quick to dance on the grave of the Kyoto Protocol. Surprisingly, they have been echoed by some environmentalists.
The key condition for bringing the Kyoto Protocol into force is that it must be ratified by the world’s industrialised countries, which account for 55 per cent of all emissions of greenhouse gases. US ratification, however desirable, is not essential. If the EU, Russia and Japan all ratify the protocol, it will come into force anyway.
On coming into force, the protocol activates the so-called “flexibility mechanisms”, in particular emissions trading, which allow those countries with high costs for greenhouse gas reductions to exchange carbon credits with those countries that can achieve emissions reductions at lower cost. However, only those countries which have ratified the protocol can participate in such bargains. If it does come into force without the Americans, these mechanisms will not be available to US businesses.
Given the past performance of the EU on climate change, the Americans could be forgiven for thinking that there is little real prospect of the EU holding together under pressure, and thus that there is small risk of the protocol being ratified successfully. This underestimates the difficulties ahead, in dealing with a Europe in which the coincidence of the IPCC’s third report and a series of exceptional weather events has given climate change a new political context among voters.
In Britain, the combination of Tony Blair’s public promises to attend the Rio + 10 gathering in Johannesburg next year, and to ratify the protocol before he does so, leaves him little room to back off, even if he wanted to. Furthermore, he has an election coming, in which the environmentalists will hold his feet to the fire on Kyoto.
France and Germany both have elections in the offing and Green parties in government; the super-green Swedes hold the presidency of the EU. If anything, the insistence on such an obtuse position by the president of the United States will forge an unusual unity among members of this normally volatile group.
For the Russians, the real opportunity lies in being a part of the Kyoto process so that they can turn their abundance of emissions credits into cash. Structural changes in the Russian economy will entitle Russians, under the protocol, to emit more carbon dioxide than they will actually produce. This difference can be counted as a carbon credit and sold. By bundling these emissions credits to their supplies of natural gas, they will be able to offer Europeans, in effect, carbon-free gas at a healthy premium. It is hard to see how a Bush administration could make the Russians a better offer.
The last piece in the ratifying coalition is Japan. Reasons of face, as much as any more material considerations, make it unlikely that Japan will fail to ratify an international treaty negotiated in Japan under Japanese leadership.
In this way, perversely, the efforts of the unpleasant coalition of ideologues and special interests that has driven Bush to set his face against Kyoto may actually have accelerated its coming into force.
In the end, international pressures will force President Bush to change his position, for it is hard to see how European leaders will persuade their populations to accept hormone-laden beef, GM foods, South American bananas, noisier aircraft or national missile defence installations, whilst a US president has set his face against doing anything about the more frequent floods and avalanches, rising sea levels and longer droughts that are directly affecting their quality of life.