The Global Warming Tragedy and the Dangerous Illusion of the Kyoto Protocol

By Gardiner, Stephen M. | Ethics & International Affairs, April 2004 | Go to article overview

The Global Warming Tragedy and the Dangerous Illusion of the Kyoto Protocol


Gardiner, Stephen M., Ethics & International Affairs


Now we can go home and look our children in the eye and be proud of what we have done.

--Margot Wallstrom

Commissioner for the Environment, European Union (1)

Little attention was paid to intergenerational justice as compared to intragenerational justice within the [climate change] negotiations.

Matthew Paterson

Keele University (2)

In Bonn in July 2001, and in a subsequent clarificatory meeting in Marrakesh the following November, 178 of the world's states reached agreement on the details of a protocol to combat global climate change brought on by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. Despite the fact that the United States had refused to endorse the agreement, representatives of the participating governments, and many newspapers around the world, expressed elation. After the Bonn meeting, Michael Meacher, Britain's environment minister, said: "Climate change is the single greatest threat to the human race. This agreement is a historic day that all of us will remember" (3) His sentiments were echoed by Pete Hodgson, New Zealand's energy minister, who claimed, "We have delivered probably the most comprehensive and difficult agreement in human history." (4) Commenting after the later meeting in Marrakesh, David D. Doniger, director of climate programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called it "by far the strongest environmental treaty that's ever been drafted," with compliance conditions that are "as good as it gets in international relations." (5) Margot Wallstrom, the environment commissioner for the European Union, went so far as to declare, "Now we can go home and look our children in the eye and be proud of what we have done." (6)

In this article, I argue for two general theses. First, the rhetoric and euphoria surrounding the 2001 deal are misplaced. This is not because Kyoto is too demanding, but rather because it is much too weak. In particular, the Kyoto agreement does little to protect future generations. On the contrary, it seems--at best--to be a prudent wait-and-see policy for the present generation, narrowly defined. As such, it is hardly a model for future environmental regulation, and no cause for optimism. Hence, even those countries that have endorsed the Kyoto agreement should be wary of looking their children in the eye, and none should relish facing their children's children. Second, the central flaw of the Kyoto Protocol can be explained in terms of the underlying structure of the climate change issue. Climate change involves the intersection of a complex set of intergenerational and intragenerational collective action problems. This structure, and in particular its intergenerational aspect, has not been adequately appreciated. Yet until it is, we are doomed to an ineffectual environmental policy.

The article has two main parts. In the first, I examine two standard theoretical models of the global warming problem and explain why those analyses provide an insufficient picture of the climate change problem in general and the Kyoto Protocol in particular. In the second, I introduce my alternative intergenerational analysis, and argue that this characterization helps to explain why the climate change problem seems significantly more difficult to resolve than the standard accounts suggest.

THE KYOTO DEAL

The Kyoto Protocol is best understood in light of its history. The political story begins with the Earth Summit of 1992. Meeting in Rio de Janeiro, the countries of the world committed themselves to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), which requires "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system" (Article 2). But the road from Rio to Marrakesh, where the protocol implementation details were finalized, was extremely bumpy. To begin with, the major component of the FCCC was an agreement to accept "common but differentiated responsibilities. …

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