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Washington wanted to do everything but lower emissions.

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jan pronk

United Nations Climate Conference Chairman Jan Pronk at the final meeting in The Hague, The Netherlands. Serge Ligtenberg


The U.S. Cut Greenhouse Gasses? When Pigs Fly

by Kelly Cogswell

DECEMBER 4, 2000. You can kiss global warming hello. The pro-industry, anti-regulatory, anti-science George W. Bush is probably headed to the White House. And two weeks of climate treaty talks fell apart November 25 at The Hague.

The participants were trying to agree on steps to implement the 1997 Kyoto Agreement which calls for developed nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions—the culprits in global warming. The sticking point was how to do it, with the European Union and the United States at loggerheads over a U.S. pay-to-pollute plan.

Almost ignored in the melee were the poorest, developing countries in the southern hemisphere which are those most affected by global warming's rising sea levels, hurricanes and floods, and the accompanying increase in diseases like malaria and dengue fever.

Fossil Fuel Junkies' Solution
The United States, which alone produces a whopping 23 percent of the world's greenhouse emissions, pushed for a plan which would have allowed it and others to buy pollution credits from nations who surpass their Kyoto emission targets.

Additional pollution credits would have been earned by reducing pollution in developing countries through improved power plant and factory technologies there. Carbon dioxide soaked up by forests—the so-called "carbon sinks"—would have also earned credits. In short, Washington wanted to do everything but lower emissions.

frank loyThe U.S. argues that it is cheaper and politically more viable to reduce emissions in developing countries than in the U.S., where citizens, business, and Congress are unlikely to go along with the extra costs. "Nations can only negotiate abroad what they believe they can ratify at home," said the top U.S. negotiator, undersecretary of state for global affairs, Frank Loy. The Kyoto agreement has not been ratified by the Senate, where a two-thirds majority is needed.

Second favorite argument was that the Kyoto agreement was unfair because it gave developing countries like China free rein to pollute, while everybody else had to foot the emissions bill.

In fact, both arguments may be false. In the midst of the conference, the U.S. Department of Energy released a report called "Scenarios for a Clean Energy Future," which asserts that emissions can be cut at little or no cost to the U.S. economy. A new study by a group of international organizations, called "Confronting Climate Change," reported that many developing countries, including Thailand, for example, have voluntarily and successfully taken steps to limit their already small share of greenhouse gases.

The Rest of the World
The only countries wholeheartedly supporting Washington's pay-to-pollute plans are Australia, Canada, and Japan, three other fossil fuel junkies. Members of the European Union, the specter of global warming fresh in their minds from recent deadly floods, were skeptical of Washington's plan.

The Europeans thought that the unadulterated plan practically guaranteed that U.S. emissions would continue at the same level, or increase. A small group of delegates brokered a last minute deal in which the U.S. agreed to significant compromises, but it collapsed when Germany and Denmark claimed that there were so many loopholes that no deal was better than a flawed one.

flying pigThese objections may have been given less credence had there not been another straw on the Hague camel's back—the immoral underpinnings of the deal. Allowing the U.S. to trade and buy credits in developing countries, while essentially refusing to tighten belts at home, is just a twenty-first century form of buying indulgences. Sin as much as you like if you've got the cold, hard cash to pay off the priest, while everyone else slips on the hair shirts.

The political consequences boil down to this: as long as Americans, the self-proclaimed leaders of the free world, snootily lead the way in environmental indulgences, delegates from the rest of the world can't return home and sell emission reductions to their citizens.

Rethinking Green
Climate Conference President, Jan Pronk, indicated a new round of talks may take place as early as May 2001. The prognosis for those talks is not good unless European hard-liners soften a little, and the U.S. agrees to cut some emissions at home, not just abroad, and to compromise on the "carbon sink" credits.

In the U.S., this means environmental activists will have to redouble efforts to persuade both American politicians, and the American people, that it is both necessary and possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Up until now industry has been extremely effective in dismissing global warming as a hysterical, expensive delusion, and in painting activists as elitist, puritanical party poopers.

Environmentalists reinforce that stereotype by seemingly ignoring national realities, like the simple fact that each small segment of American society has a wildly different and complicated relationship to the "environment," and that there has to be a myriad of solutions that take into account these cultural and social factors.

Bearing the Brunt
Developing nations were almost entirely eclipsed when U.S. "pragmatists" and European "moralists" slugged it out. "We will continue to be the victims of the adverse impacts of climate change,'' said Sani Daura of Nigeria, spokesman for the Group of 77, which represents most developing countries. The G77 almost walked out of the conference in protest.

The small island states in the Pacific are particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming like rising seas, and increasingly violent storms. Fiji alone could suffer damage costing up to $52 million every year by 2050—equivalent to 4 percent of its current gross domestic product. For Kiribati, it could cost a third of its GDP.

Simad Saheed, the leading spokesmen for AOSIS, the Alliance Of Small Island States, explained the plight of the Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean. "Eighty percent of our land area is less than one meter above sea level. If the sea rises by that much, there will be no Maldives." Instead of providing support, Saheed said representatives from some industrialized countries have callously told him, "Why don't you just move out?"

Related links:

For the link page of Global Warming Central.

For Global Change—A Review of Climate Change and Ozone Depletion.

For the ubiquitous Greenpeace International.

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