A weather eye on...

Weather Eye looks forward to the second part of COP-6 and considers possible outcomes, including linkage between the climate problem and missile defense.

The first question that will have to be resolved as the Sixth Conference of the Parties to the climate treaty resumes in July 2001 is whether President George W Bush has decided that no progress whatsoever can be made within the framework of the Kyoto Protocol or whether the declaration of withdrawal simply amounted to sabre rattling.

It is unlikely that the Bush Administration realized back in March just how vociferous the reaction of the international community would be to the abandonment of Kyoto.

“Outrageous... sabotage,” responded Sweden’s Environment Minister, Kjell Larsen. Global warming “wasn’t some marginal environmental issue that can be ignored or played down,” said Margot Wallstrom, European Union Environment Commissioner. Wallstrom argued that any American refusal to take on emissions control commitments would distort fair competition: “Why should we put European businesses under such high pressure and let American companies off the hook?” The United States could not “free ride” on the rest of the world, warned John Prescott, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister and one of the Kyoto architects.

From Japan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said that he found it “very deplorable” that the United States regarded the Kyoto Protocol as seriously flawed. “We will continue efforts,” he continued, “to find a way to earn their understanding and cooperation.”

The fear is that negotiations between the United States and the rest of the world on control targets will have to re-start from the position at Kyoto in 1997 before the last-minute compromise that the Protocol represented. One clear lesson to be learnt from recent events is that last-minute compromise does not provide the soundest basis for implementation of the climate treaty.

Whether or not it proves possible to retain elements of the Kyoto framework – undoubtedly re-badged the Bonn or Marrakesh Protocol to satisfy the folks back home – there would appear to be a number of ways forward.

If the United States is to retain a place at the table, compromise is inevitable. But the nature of that compromise is critical and could have substantial implications for the health of the international response to the climate problem, not to mention the health of the climate system itself.

One way forward would be to permit the United States to ‘cook the books,’ the direction the American negotiators have been heading in for some time. By allowing considerable freedom in terms of credit associated with land management (sinks), limited constraints on use of the flexibility mechanisms and so on, the United States could appear to meet, say, its existing Kyoto target – but with little or no effect on the global warming rate. Hardly a satisfactory outcome.

© 2001 Lawrence Moore

Common sense would, we hope, also dictate that another possible means of compromise, linkage between European support for the ‘Star Wars’ national missile defense system and American action on climate, will be viewed as an unacceptable step out of the frying pan into the fire.

A healthier way forward would be to accept that, for a variety of reasons, the United States does face a very severe challenge in controlling domestic emissions. It makes sense, therefore, while we are at the precautionary stage of responding to the climate problem, to allow some concession in terms of a less stringent emissions target, though only in the short-term.

In this way, the problem of American non-compliance is not obscured by creative accounting but is accepted as a ‘special circumstance’ of that nation, intrinsically related to its historic role as major polluter.

This is not to argue for a moment that the United States should be permitted to shirk its responsibility, but winning the climate war may mean losing the occasional battle. Side-stepping confrontation, for now, may permit the consensual development of a more effective global climate regime.

But what would be lost if a significant proportion of the rest of the world were to ‘go it alone’ and ratify the Kyoto Protocol without the United States?

The benefits of the resulting emissions reduction would clearly be less than with full participation. But with or without the United States, the Protocol target of a reduction of five per cent or so below 1990 levels for the industrialized North represents a drop in the ocean compared to the global reduction of at least 60 per cent needed to halt global warming.

What is important now is not so much whether we reduce the scale of the problem by a few per cent by 2010, or by a few per cent plus, but whether we can develop a robust climate treaty regime that can handle, in an equitable and effective fashion, the far, far greater challenge that is on the horizon.

It may well be that the easiest way to do this is to allow George W Bush to opt out for the time being while the rest of the world works together to develop an effective regime. Ultimately, the United States will be brought back into a much stronger fold than would have otherwise been the case.

It might take a new administration to achieve reconciliation. But even George W Bush must realize that he has lost considerable international goodwill and capital, not only over climate but also through inept handling of relations with North and South Korea, China, and Japan, devout worship at the altar of missile defense and the despicable refusal of the new head of USAID to support anti-retroviral AIDS treatment in Africa. Though it may take American business fears about lost opportunities as new technology is ignored and the threat of transatlantic trade sanctions over unfair competition to bring this particular administration around.

The problem is that many aspects of the climate treaty, and the commitment to equity and sustainability that it enshrines, are fundamentally at odds with the right-wing philosophy espoused by the Bush Administration. Adhering to the belief system of Leo Strauss, the poor of this world are poor because they are of poor character, they deserve their fate, and those at risk from climate change only have themselves to blame for lacking the resources to escape.

If the United States does continue negotiating, we can expect more and more emphasis on unfettered free market mechanisms, which following Straussian ideology, will reward those of strong moral character. And who might those be?

On the Web
Comment on the climate negotiations and news of ongoing developments can be accessed via the Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary Newswatch service. On the Web: The climate negotiations lists further links.