The Kyoto Treaty Deserved to Die

By DeMuth, Christopher | The American Enterprise, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The Kyoto Treaty Deserved to Die


DeMuth, Christopher, The American Enterprise


Why we should think more and clamp down less on global warming.

President Bush's firm rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change put the final nail in the coffin of a doomed project. By 2012, the agreement would have required the leading industrial nations to reduce their "greenhouse gas" emissions to levels below 1990 totals (regardless of population growth and economic transformations in the various countries), and would have exempted China and other developing nations entirely (despite the fact that their growing emissions would have swamped the reductions from the developed nations). Long before President Bush acted, this approach had been rejected by the U.S. Senate in a vote of 95-0, which is why President Clinton never submitted the treaty for ratification. Nor had any other major nation adopted the agreement when implementation negotiations collapsed amidst acrimony and name-calling in November 2000.

The failure of the Kyoto Protocol was both inevitable and desirable--inevitable because it required the impossible, desirable because it stood in the way of feasible, effective climate-change policies. Those who framed the agreement treated global warming as a well-understood, immediate problem--indeed as an incipient crisis. This view produced a program of drastic short-term controls on emissions of CO2 and other gases, which in turn produced irresoluble economic conflicts, both among the developed nations that negotiated the agreement and between the developed and developing nations.

The key features of the climate change debate are large degrees of uncertainty and a long time horizon. Although it is fairly well-established that the Earth's atmosphere has warmed somewhat (one degree Fahrenheit) during the past century, it's not clear why this happened. The warming may have been due to human impositions (the burning of fossil fuels and other incidents of industrial growth), or to natural solar or climate variations, or to some of each. Whatever the causes, we don't know if future warming trends will be large or small, or whether the net environmental and economic consequences (including both beneficial and harmful effects) may be large or small.

These uncertainties are carefully described in the recent official reports on global warming--the National Academy of Sciences' June 2001 report to President Bush, and the earlier Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It is regrettable that the media accounts of these studies have downplayed or ignored the uncertainties, for they are fundamental to the question of right policy, not academic quibbles or excuses for delay. Equally fundamental is the long time horizon: Even if we are in for substantial warming, the effects will not begin to occur for several decades, probably at least a half century.

It is important to appreciate that we have time, because we need time, and not only to get a better grip on causes and consequences. Regulating CO2 emissions on a global scale would require political institutions that do not now exist--and, in the developing nations, political support that will not exist until their citizens have attained significantly higher standards of living. Moreover, the progressive replacement over time of fossil-fuel-burning by newer methods of producing energy may solve the problem without recourse to controls. If policy encouragement is needed, existing and prospective pollution controls may be sufficient. Finally, human and ecological adaption, and even direct climate "bioengineering," could be equally or more effective responses to harmful warming whatever the cause--and would be the only effective responses to natural warming.

We will know vastly more about the relative merits of these alternatives several decades from now. And we will almost certainly be vastly richer--a key consideration, especially in China and other currently poor nations, if the best responses involve taxes, regulatory controls, or public expenditures that impinge seriously on economic growth. …

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