Europe at the Crossroads

It’s hard for Americans, even progressive Americans, to imagine a future in which the U.S. is no longer the “indispensable country.” This is as true when it comes to climate politics as it is in any other area, and for much the same reason-the U.S. looms so large that it simply cannot be ignored. We emit, in particular, such a high share of world’s carbon that, in the end, any climate regime to which we do not immediately subscribe is doomed to failure.

Or so, at least, it seems. And it’s because it does that the history of the climate talks is a history of attempts to placate the U.S. Which is, again, a big part of the reason why the Kyoto negotiations-and the Kyoto Protocol itself-are in such a sorry state. The fact of the matter is that, barring sudden deliverance by a new energy revolution on a computer-boom scale, the U.S. as we know it today will refuse and resist any climate treaty even remotely appropriate to the threat. The fossil-fuel lobby is just too powerful here to expect anything else. Which is why, perversely and quite inadvertently, the Bush administration may have just done the world a colossal favor.

All this became clear when the Bush administration repudiated the “Four Pollutants” bill. (See the post 4P or Not 4P ). 4P would have lumped carbon dioxide together with sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury-all “traditional” air pollutants that not even a coal-state Republican can afford to overtly ignore-and in so doing it promised a form of carbon regulation that was both low profile and business friendly. It was the kind of bill that gives pragmatism a good name, and for a while it even looked like it would work.

For a while. We’re not going to rehearse the whole sorry story of how the new administration repudiated Kyoto-you’re no doubt pretty sick of it by now-but it is important to remember the early days, when EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman flew off to the G8 confab, and told her counterparts that Bush intended to set “mandatory reduction targets” for several pollutants, including carbon dioxide. It’s important, that is, to recall the rather pixilated hope that was running though enviro circles at the time, even if it takes an effort to overcome embarrassment and do so.

Here’s how the story went: Maybe Bush would surprise us all and do a “Nixon to China!” After all, the U.S. under Clinton had (almost) negotiated a tough deal at The Hague. What if Bush decided to support Kyoto, which after all would allow him to paint himself green. Bush, unlike either Clinton or Gore, could actually deliver the Senate. Right

So much, then, for the hope that this is going to be easy.

Which leaves us with the hope that it’s going to be possible! As this issue of CEO2 goes to web, Jan Pronk has just released his latest draft of the Kyoto rules, and may we, without taking the time to review it in detail, characterize it as an improvement on the proposal that deadlocked during the last days of The Hague May we observe that, for better or for worse, this is fundamentally the same deal as that which the Bush people have already rejected as “unfair to the United States”

Let’s say, for now, that we can. And let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that the U.S. is unlikely to suddenly change its spots and pursue ratification. What, then, comes next

Well, it has become abundantly clear in the last few weeks that the “next” strategy is an E.U.-led ratification coalition. It’s an old idea, once called the “European Leadership Initiative,” but with the Bush rejection it’s now moved decisively to the center of the action. Europe can now take a hack at the chains binding it to Washington and move towards Kyoto’s ratification, while looking South, and East, and working to build a coalition that might actually get the Protocol over the top and into international law-a coalition that, at least initially, does not contain the United States.

Kyoto, crucially, is written so that no single party can torpedo it. If Europe and the G77 / China could move towards ratification, and if they could fill out the Kyoto rules so that the Russians and the Japanese can eventually come along, they would have started a whole new ballgame. This is all the more true because such a European / G77 ratification coalition would be under tremendous pressure from the very beginning. To bring it into being, and then hold it together, the Europeans will have to find ways to approach the so-far-untouchable capstone issue-the terms of the inevitable allocation in which each nation, rich and poor, is granted a fair share of the atmosphere’s limited carbon-absorption capacity. They don’t have to engage the details, not yet, but it must be “understood” by all parties that when push comes to shove, as it will, Europe will stand with the South on the essential issue of “fairness.”

Is the new Pronk text consistent with this strategy It appears so, for while granting the Americans much of the “flexibility” they’ve always demanded, it proposes radically increased adaptation and technology transfer funding for the South, to the tune of a billion-dollars per year by 2005. The money would come from contributions by developed nations in proportion to their CO2 emissions in the base year, 1990. The United States, which emits 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, might pay about 250 million dollars a year.

Now this, really, is small peanuts. But then, so are the U.S.’s UN dues. And even if the purpose of this funding is to help developing countries limit greenhouse gas emissions, it’s obvious that the Bush people aren’t going to agree to it. Which is fine, as long as the Europeans don’t start thinking that they will. And they could do just that. Wishful thinking, after all, is a powerful force in human affairs, and if you mix it together with all the other ingredients in the strange stew we know as “political realism” you get an unstable concoction indeed. We should not forget that, ever since World War II, the Europeans have always buckled under U.S. pressure. They always retreat, and retreat again, and why would anything be different this time around

Well, maybe because the Bush people have been just a bit too clumsy, just a bit too bald. Because at the brink of Kyoto’s collapse, the U.S. chose to give it a push. And despite all the skepticism about a ratification strategy that doesn’t include the U.S. (there’s plenty available) the fact is that the Europeans are acting pretty serious these days. At least that’s is the impression you get by reading about E.U.’s whirlwind tour to China, Russia, Iran, and Japan-a tour explicitly designed to assess whether it would be possible to carry through on the Kyoto treaty without the United States.

The U.S. administration is not particularly worried. Little, as far as we can tell, has changed since March 16th, the Washington Post quoted Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman, speaking these hoary words: “Our message to other parties, and that includes European countries, is they shouldn’t make any assumptions about our policy until our review is complete.” Which is, as the Brits say, a load of bollocks. Clearly, the U.S. is going to play its old game, coming on strong and hoping that the Europeans fold and give them everything: unlimited sinks, unlimited trading, nuclear, and all the rest of it.

Or maybe this’ll get even worse. Some European NGO analysts fear that this July, at COP 6bis, the Bush people are going to go for broke, and loudly repeat that the Kyoto Protocol, and entire process that led to it, is unfair to the United States. In Bush’s letter to Senator Hagel, the one in which he announced that he wouldn’t be regulating carbon dioxide after all, he averred that “I oppose the Kyoto Protocol because it exempts 80% of the world.” And why wouldn’t the Bush people just continue in the same vein The climate community won’t buy it-count historical emissions, and the 20% of the world covered by Kyoto is responsible for 80% of the problem-but the Republicans know, or think they know, that it plays in Peoria.

This is going to get worse before it gets better, but it’s important to see that it could indeed get better, and maybe soon. This is particularly so because the politics of the climate negotiations are closely suggestive of just the sorts of “balance of power” problems that weigh so heavily in traditional “realist” thought. As the world’s only superpower, the U.S. is free to focus on its internal political dynamics, free to be unilateralist-but the U.S., it must be remembered, is not quite the superpower it used to be. And if the Bush people again overplay their hand, if they come to COP 6bis talking about the need for the developing countries to accept emission-limits before the U.S. can accept any of its own, then it will finally be the hour of decision for Europe, and for all the rest of the U.S.’s allies besides. Because if the South is left to stand alone against such a charge, well, the whole Kyoto Process would go down in flames.

It’s a dangerous situation, but it’s also heavy with opportunity. The Bush people have thrown down the gauntlet, and it’s only reasonable to expect that they’ll toss another when the talks resume. At a deeper level, though, what happens next will depend less on the U.S. than on the rest of the world, and how it, or rather its elites, face their now obvious conditions of existence. The science is grim, the global economy unstable, and the political field suddenly too open for old rules to suffice. The Europeans could fold with the Bush crowd, for the habits of servility die hard. But, crucially, they may not. The fact is that European servility no longer makes geopolitical sense, and that the trans-Atlantic tensions engendered by U.S. climate politics join a growing portfolio of friction points on issues as disjoint as nuclear missile defense and genetically-modified foods. Besides, when hegemons overreach, anti-hegemonic alliances become possible. They sometimes become necessary as well, but necessity becomes a real force only when people recognize and fight for it.

Just now, necessity dictates that the climate regime be protected from the Americans. And it’s possible, just possible, that the Europeans are ready to give it a try. Not, to be sure, that this is a time for optimism. If the Bush administration forces the issue of developing country participation, all hell is going to break loose. If the Europeans and the Japanese want to save Kyoto, they’re going to have to move fast, and just now the Japanese don’t seem ready for decisive action of any sort. The South, for its part, will go along with anything reasonable, anything that gets the first phase of the treaty in place and sets the stage for the big event-the North / South deal that will finally determine if we can get the global climate onto a “soft landing corridor.” Or if we should just give it up.

We could be wrong, but it looks to us like it’s going to come down, this time, to the Europeans. And we’re hoping that they’re as pissed off as they sound.

Meanwhile, back at the Ranch

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., the bottom line on the Bush Kyoto imbroglio seems to be that environmentalism-environmentalism as usual-is now clearly part of the political mainstream. The Democrats picked up the issue fast, in part because of the publication of the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report, but also because it offered them a safe way to slam Bush. And the press coverage, too, has not been what Bush’s handlers would have wished for. Press reception of the administration claim that the science was still “uncertain” has been particularly scathing.

Still, the fact remains that no one in the U.S. not even the enviros, has made a point of challenging Bush’s argument, borrowed of course from the carbon cartel, that Kyoto is “unfair.” Bush can repeat the line safely, and his people know it. To be sure, Bush’s opponents, both enviro and editorialist, have noted that, given our vastly disproportionate rate of GHG pollution, we have an obligation to act first, an obligation we acknowledged when we ratified the UNFCCC. But the central point, that Americans use far more than their fair share of the air, has been broached in only the most tentative of ways. Why shouldn’t China’s emissions be unrestricted indefinitely if each Chinese pollutes eight times less than an American Even if you’ve been scouring the press, you’ll have heard very little on the subject.

What should the enviros be saying

One possibility is to start by giving the devil his due. The anti-Kyoto line that Kyoto can’t work because developing world emissions are unrestricted has one logical aspect, and maybe we could start there. After all, if you believed that the developing countries would never restrict their emissions, you could argue that the industrialized countries shouldn’t do so either. We could just all go to hell together. And from there, maybe you could back up to something that made sense. After all, this is a cooperative game and the U.S. has to go first, if only because the developing countries simply have no token of cooperation to offer that doesn’t amount to a reward to the rich countries for their high pollution.

Or do they

Actually, a strong case can be made that the developing countries have a right to not only match the per-capita emissions of the developed world, but to go beyond that level until their cumulative per capita emissions match those in the rich world. This is what’s known in the climate trade as “historical accountability,” and it needs to be remembered, if only because the South, simply by accepting a treaty based on current per capita equality, would be making a huge concession. After all, it’s unarguably obvious that the rich world got rich in the first place in part through unrestricted fossil fuel use. And since this is so, isn’t it also so that by giving up claims to historical equality-to the atmospheric component of the ecological debt-the developing countries would be conceding not only the legitimacy of the North’s wealth, but as well all the interest that has accrued on it

This is not an idle academic point, not in a rapidly warming world where the fairness or unfairness of the climate treaty has become a first-order geopolitical issued. We bring it up, in any case, to show that a treaty based on per-capita emissions would actually be a good deal for the developed world.

And there’s more. Many developing country governments and NGOs accept the Contraction and Convergence approach, in which the North will act first and, down the road, emissions allocations will converge to an equal per capita basis. Indeed, Kyoto’s essential structure, in which the developed countries act first, is acceptable to the South precisely because it is-or could be-a step in such a direction. But note if you will that this convergence has been left unscheduled, indefinite, and even unspoken, a matter than should be counted as a second major compromise on the part of the South. The issue will, however, come up soon, and we have got to start getting ready for it. Meanwhile, the U.S. has steadfastly done its part by refused to even utter the words “per capita” in the international negotiations-except in such contexts as, for example, “Please remove that reference to ‘per capita’ from the Article 12 text.”

As we said above, hope for the planet may lie in the Europeans and the South moving towards ratification without us. It won’t be easy, and what it would mean in the U.S. is, obviously, an open question. One thing we know-if Kyoto were to enter into force without the United States, the isolationist right would go bananas, but beyond that our crystal ball fails us. It’s already the case the majority of Americans think climate change is a serious problem, and worsening impacts will change the playing field year by year. Perhaps, just as reality passed by the domestic opponents of the New Deal, the Republicans will be left behind by a new global deal.

We can hope for it, and we can work to make it so.