Running on Fumes: Curbing Global Warming Was Supposed to Be Al Gore's Road to Glory. Then Politics and the High Cost of Climate Control Got in the Way

By Breslau, Karen | Newsweek, December 8, 1997 | Go to article overview

Running on Fumes: Curbing Global Warming Was Supposed to Be Al Gore's Road to Glory. Then Politics and the High Cost of Climate Control Got in the Way


Breslau, Karen, Newsweek


Curbing global warming was supposed to be Al Gore's road to glory. Then politics and the high cost of climate control got in the way.

WEARY AIDES TO AL Gore call it his "Climate 101" lecture. This week he'll give it once again-an apocalyptic recitation of the dangers posed by melting glaciers, rising oceans and skyrocketing carbon-dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. It's a speech the vice president knows by heart; he's worked on it his entire political life and has been polishing the pitch since he wrote his 1992 manifesto, "Earth in the Balance." Left unchecked, global warming would lead to an "environmental holocaust," Gore warned. But the vice president won't be delivering his message in Kyoto, Japan, where the world's governments are gathering to negotiate a treaty intended to control greenhouse gases. Instead, he'll be some 8,000 miles away at a photo op in the Florida Everglades.

But Kyoto, not south Florida, was supposed to be where the action was. "We have to begin bold action and create momentum to solve this problem" Gore recently told NEWSWEEK. For the first time in history, nations would commit themselves to binding reductions in the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by a specific date. So why would Gore miss an event dedicated to a cause in which he so passionately believes? In part because his task--balancing environmentalists' calls to control emissions with industry's and labor's reluctance to pay the price-has proven trickier than even he could imagine. The greens think the United States has sold out. Corporations and unions fear the cost of a deal. Asian leaders are more worried about market meltdown than melting glaciers. So there is little sign that a treaty acceptable to all sides could come out of the summit in Japan.

For the record, Gore's aides rightly point out that vice presidents don't usually crash international gatherings of environmental ministers. Protocol aside, scientists agree global warming isn't as simple an issue as the environmentalists would have you believe. There will be winners and losers as the temperature rises (following story). The stakes are indeed enormous: critics claim that even minor reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions could cost the U.S. economy $250 billion a year, inflating gasoline and electricity prices and eliminating a million jobs in the coal, auto and chemical industries. Gore and his allies counter that an emissions-control regime will create high-tech environmental jobs, boost American exports and generate economic growth. But few are buying that argument at the moment.

The international fault lines endangering a treaty have been apparent for some time. Industrial nations have yet to agree on a target or a timetable for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The Europeans claim they can reduce gas emissions 15 percent below a 1990 baseline level by 2010; the Clinton administration has pledged only to return to the 1990 baseline sometime between 2008 and 2012. Developing nations--including China, Indonesia and India--claim they should be exempt from cleanup requirements since they did not contribute to the problem in the First place. The Asian Financial crisis has made prospects for a global agreement even worse. Bill Clinton got a sense of the peril awaiting U.S. negotiators at Kyoto during last week's summit ocountries o the Asia-Pacific Rim in Vancouver, where he found his fellow leaders far more concerned about their financial markets than global warming. I developing, high-polluting countries like China, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand can't be persuaded to sign a treaty, the Senate has already pledged to reject it.

Nothing about Kyoto is easy for Gore. If he goes, and there is no deal, he would be associated with failure. Meanwhile, Democratic interest groups are lying in wait in case there is any kind of accord. A strict treaty, while pleasing environmentalists, would no doubt anger labor and industry. …

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