A Climate Of Despair

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With the U.S. essentially sidelining itself in the global-warming fight, it is possible that the battle may never be effectively engaged. What's causing the most distress among environmentalists is that all this comes at a time when many other pieces of the global-warming solution seemed to be falling into place. In the U.S., state and local governments have been increasingly active in implementing greenhouse programs of their own, clamping down on emissions within their borders, stepping up mass-transit initiatives and enforcing conservation laws. Corporations in such sooty industries as oil and autos have been climbing on board too, imposing on themselves the very restrictions Washington won't. Outside the U.S., green-leaning developed nations like the E.U. members and emerging polluters like China and Mexico have seemed to be getting the message, implementing new programs and testing new technologies to control global warming, even without the cudgel of Kyoto.

What was needed to complete the picture was a vigorously engaged U.S. to control its own titanic greenhouse output and help get Kyoto enacted. The developments of the past few weeks cast doubt on whether that will happen, and for now, other nations may have to go it alone. "The science is so much more solid that humans are not going to sit by and foul their own nests," says Fred Krupp, executive director of the advocacy group Environmental Defense. "We have to do something now."

For all the storm Kyoto has caused, its original provisions seem modest: a 5% reduction in emissions below 1990 levels for most industrialized nations, with the U.S.--as the world's worst CO2 offender--getting slapped with an incrementally tougher 7% cut. Developing countries that signed the treaty would get a pass for a while.

Simple atmospheric arithmetic suggests that this kind of sliding scale for emissions makes sense, but a closer look explains the Administration's objections. The category of developing countries, for the purposes of the accord, included China and India, major powers by almost any measure. Giving two such heavyweights a CO2 waiver while the U.S. had to carry its share struck a lot of people as galling. "A protocol that excepts China and India and...penalizes American industry...wouldn't be ratifiable," says Rice.

What's more, the cuts the protocol requires are deeper than they seem. The Kyoto terms were drafted four years ago, but they would not go into effect until 2008. The CO2-reduction goals would not have to be met until 2012. U.S. greenhouse emissions are projected to grow more than 20% by then, which means that getting 7% below 1990 levels could actually require a 30% cut in output. Even then, the difference might not be enough to have any real impact. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a Kyoto booster, believes that in order to put the brakes on warming, a reduction of 60% may be needed. So sobering are these numbers that even nations that still support the pact have had trouble apportioning the burden, and the most recent talks, at the Hague last November, collapsed. The next meeting is scheduled for July in Bonn.

No matter how the talks turn out, the kind of bitter medicine the protocol prescribes, with the U.S. taking the biggest slug, did not go down well in Washington even before Bush arrived. In 1997 the Senate, which must ratify treaties, voted 95 to 0 that no global-warming pact that came before it would be okayed unless it treated developed and developing countries equally. Such a repudiation is one more argument the Administration is using to pull the plug on Kyoto--though it was more than mere conscience that was probably driving the Senate. One of the resolution's sponsors was Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, from the coal-producing state of West Virginia.

But even as recently as January, with the Bush-Cheney team in and the Clinton-Gore team out, there was reason for environmentalists to hope. Whitman, who had built a respectable environmental record as New Jersey Governor, was a pleasant surprise as EPA chief, and Bush had sometimes belied expectations, besting the bright green Al Gore during the campaign with his call for mandatory caps on power-plant emissions. What's more, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill--former Alcoa chairman--turned out to be a Kyoto backer, drafting a memo for the new President arguing that the only problem with the pact was that it didn't go far enough.

On March 6, after her February meeting with European leaders, Whitman too wrote Bush a memo in which she argued that the U.S. had a credibility problem when it came to climate change. "The world community...are all convinced of the seriousness of this issue," she wrote. "It is also an issue that is resonating here, at home. We need to appear engaged."

Other interests--notably the oil and coal industries, both heavy contributors to Bush's campaign--also had the President's ear. Only a week after Bush received Whitman's memo, he wrote a letter of his own to four industry-friendly Republican Senators, announcing the reversal of his CO2 pledge and declaring his opposition to Kyoto. Whitman was sandbagged--forced to explain Bush's position and defend her credibility. "My job," she said, "is to provide the President with my best take. He needs to make a decision based on all the factors. I am fully comfortable with his decision."

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