Why Saving the Planet May Be Too Politically Costly

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Last call for saving the planet... The final round of negotiations over the Kyoto Protocol on climate change opened in the Netherlands on Monday, and right now Earth's prospects don't look so good — that is if you believe, unlike would-be president-elect George W. Bush, that there is a scientific link between global warming and carbon gas emissions. The current talks are being held to meet a deadline for finalizing the 1997 Kyoto treaty, which requires industrialized nations to dramatically reduce emissions from the use of oil, coal and other fossil fuels. Kyoto emerged out of concern that the planet's warming — 1998 was the hottest year on record, and 1999 wasn't far behind — will produce catastrophic climatic effects that will make recent "wild weather" patterns look mild by comparison.

The Kyoto treaty is based upon the assumption that the carbon gases created by the burning of fossil fuels significantly contribute to global warming through the "greenhouse effect" — a layer of vapor and gases that trap the sun's heat in our atmosphere. And that assumption is based on solid science, according to the consensus among mainstream scientists, notwithstanding the protestations of Governor Bush, the petrochemical industry and a minority of scientists.

But while the Republican presidential nominee is openly hostile to Kyoto, it remains unlikely that Vice President Gore — who led the U.S. team to the negotiations that produced the protocol — would win the requisite 67 Senate votes to ratify the treaty. After all, the treaty requires that in the next decade, the industrialized nations cut their carbon gas outputs to a level 5 percent below the 1990 figures. And for a booming U.S. economy whose output levels continue to increase every year, that would mean an economically burdensome 20-30 percent reduction in coal-fired electricity, gasoline consumption and other burning of fossil fuel. Europe is far ahead of the U.S. on the road to reducing its carbon gas outputs, but mostly through taxes on gasoline that push the pump price up past $4 a gallon — a scenario almost unthinkable for any U.S. politician contemplating reelection.

The Clinton administration is sending its negotiators to The Hague to press for concessions that will make the treaty easier on the U.S., but Europe and the developing world aren't in a forgiving mood toward the country that single-handedly produced 36 percent of the planet's greenhouse gas emissions in 1990. Washington wants exchangeable "credits" for countries that make progress in cutting emissions, which can then be purchased by the U.S. and other big polluters. It also wants credit for planting forests designed to soak up carbon gases, and to avoid the treaty's prescribing financial penalties for non-compliance. The Europeans are lukewarm on the first two, and ice-cool on the third. Then again, being the world's biggest polluter gives Washington significant leverage over the final form of the treaty. Which may mean that whatever the shape of the deal cut by the politicians, the raw end will inevitably fall to the planet.