Why There's More Hot Air on Global Warming

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Most of us need deadlines to spur us into action, which may be why nobody’s rushing to stop the belching of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The international deadline for the 5.2 percent cut from 1990 global output levels envisaged in the 1997 Kyoto Climate Change treaty is 2012, four full election cycles from now. Representatives of the 150 nations party to the treaty gathered in Bonn, Germany, on Monday to discuss technical details of fulfilling its requirements. But the treaty has yet to be ratified by a number of the world’s leading industrialized nations, including the United States, and that’s something President Clinton may be unlikely to risk following his humiliation in the Senate on the nuclear Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. After all, as the world’s largest polluter, the U.S. will be expected to dramatically cut its consumption of gasoline and other carbon-based fuels, and no president will comfortably pass the tax hikes and other restrictions necessary to effect that reduction. Especially when the oil industry is funding an aggressive marketing campaign telling voters that the problem is overstated and the treaty is unfair.

Far from showing any downward trend, carbon gas emissions in the U.S. are continuing to increase; even the European Union, which fancies itself as the world leader on environmental matters, is stabilizing rather than reducing its output. And although President Clinton recently characterized Republican opposition to the Kyoto Climate Change treaty as a threat to American jobs, the electorate may be more easily persuaded that signing the treaty is a threat to their SUVs. That may be why the most attractive item on offer at the Bonn talks could be an emissions-trading scheme, that will allow industrialized countries to buy "credits" from others whose pollution levels are below their quotas allowed under the treaty. If they can’t convince U.S. consumers to make the sacrifices needed to cut their own outputs, future White House tenants may at least be able to buy others’ polluting rights.