Raise a Glass to Kyoto

The climate showdown, as everyone knows, is coming soon. The Europeans are doing their best to ratify Kyoto, but the Japanese-essential to any ratification coalition that lacks the US-are waffling, and the US (contrary to the promises it made last month in Sweden) is maneuvering to get its way. If it does, the setback will be strategically serious and politically demoralizing, so much so that few climate activists, today, are willing to even admit the possibility of failure. Doing so, after all, could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

At some point, however, we have to take stock. That point would have come after last November’s COP6 in The Hague, but then COP6 deadlocked, and we learned that it would be continued in Bonn this summer. The Supreme Court soon thereafter appointed G.W. Bush as the US president, and ever since then the ball has been relentlessly in play. Now, of course, all eyes are turning to Bonn, where the second shoe is about to drop, and already the futurists among us are looking forward to COP7 in Morocco, and to Rio+10 in Johannesburg. After all, the great thing about the Kyoto Protocol, like the UNFCCC before it, is that it’s a moving target. If we lose the next round, there’ll be another, and another. Failure, as they say, is not an option.

There are of course downsides to this openendedness. One of them is battle fatigue. Another is that the time for reflection may never come, at least publicly. Sure, the key players will talk over beers, in next year’s conferences, at the next emergency Ministerial confab. But politically, the overwhelming need will be to make Bush pay, and perhaps Koizumi as well, and who knows who else No fertile ground, this, for appraisal, or for imagining a new strategy. When, then, will it come time to reckon up not only the damage done, but the ground won as well And to do so publicly, so that everyone can see the ledgers

It’s important to realize that, whatever happens in Bonn, the Kyoto Protocol has already brought us far, far down the road. Yes, if it collapses, we’ll be set back years, but it’s not actually very likely to collapse, not in that way. The EU is set to ratify, and the pressure will remain upon Japan until the end of time. The US midterm election will come. The droughts and the storms will worsen and the tides of public opinion, too, will continue to shift. The game, other words, is on, and the battle over Kyoto was the opening. Kyoto’s friends and defenders were right to claim that it would be a good first step; the proof is that it already has been. Moreover, if Kyoto does go down, there will be serious collateral damage, for the Bush administration but also for the US itself, as we know it. And this, too, will have to be tallied as a positive.

And there’s more. The recent tussle over Kyoto has moved the debate about “the next step” onto the front pages. The rich world’s primary responsibility for climate change is now a matter of routine discussion, as is the rather difficult problem of designing a fair global carbon treaty for an unfair world. No matter, then, what happens in the next year, the debate has started at earnest, and it marks a new political epoch. The Cold War isn’t only over, it’s old news; even realists of the old school now know that ecology has become high politics.

It would be hyperbole to say that Kyoto has already succeeded, but on the other hand it has clearly focused the debate about “sustainable development” in a way that no other initiative has been able to do. It has widened the split in the elite classes (let’s call the two sides “the Neanderthals” and “the Neoliberals”), shifted the balance of US electoral politics (Senator Jeffords, the author of a once promising bill that would have regulated carbon dioxide in the utility sector, cited “environmental differences” with the Republicans as one of the reasons he became a Democrat), and sharply accelerating the erosion of US geopolitical hegemony. And all this is still the overture; as the EU pursues ratification, and when the climate transition finally begins at earnest, there will be a great deal more.

As for G.W. Bush, well let’s just say that his handlers have realized, albeit belatedly, that their coarse, ham-handed rejection of Kyoto was a mistake. But they continue to compound the errors, and, hemmed in as they are by the terror of appearing “soft” on Kyoto, and thus alienating their right wing, they can deliver nothing by way of a constructive counterproposal. We can, then, confidently look forward to the Bush people shooting themselves in the foot again. Indeed, no less a pundit than Dick Morris (NY Post, June 12, 2001) thinks Bush’s refusal of Kyoto may mark his Waterloo. And, clearly, the Bush administration’s climate policy has done nothing to calm a world that was already reacting testily to a US that it regards as brazenly, and dangerously, unilateralist. Forget, for a moment, the Euro-American friction over nuclear missile defense, Plan Colombia, the death penalty, North Korea, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and even genetically modified foods. If you’re trying to handicap the coming confrontation over global warming, remember that even the US’s traditional strategic allies in Europe helped to expel it from the United Nations Human Rights Commission. The move that would have been inconceivable even a few years back, but US behavior, and particularly it’s continued refusal to condemn Israel for its use of disproportionate force against the Palestinians, became too much for even the Europeans to tolerate.

The setup has been falling into place for years now, and nothing indicates that it’s going to change soon. The Bush energy policy, with its call for 1,300 new fossil-fuel power plants, was not the act of an administration that takes global warming, or overseas concerns about global warming, seriously. Since its rollout, there’s been a good deal of administration backpedaling, but it’s come as contrived photo opportunities, halfhearted spin, and calls for “more research,” and has only been intended to soften the backlash to the administration’s overeager attack on Kyoto. Altogether, administration policy adds up to a package that may or may not fly in Peoria, but that sure isn’t going down well in Paris. The trouble, as it turns out, is that the enviros aren’t a marginal fringe group after all, especially not in Europe, and that global warming is taken dead seriously throughout the world.

Except in Washington, that is.

The Equity Question

What’s really interesting, though, is that the attack the Bush people have chosen against Kyoto-rejecting it as unfair because it excludes developing countries like China and India-has catapulted the climate debate several years into the future. Six months ago, neither Northern environmental NGOs nor the G-77 would talk much about developing country commitments-they were just too hot a topic, with too high a chance of squirreling the whole deal. The plan, instead, was for everyone to keep their heads down and work for the best possible set of Kyoto-framework rules and regulations. Then the ratification battle would start, and (in our dreams) even the US (under Gore) would sign on. Then and only then, the discussion about how to include the developing world in a “second commitment period” treaty would finally go public.

Well goodbye to all that! The battle over Kyoto’s implementation language is of course continuing, but it has, at least for the moment, been obscured by the turmoil of the Euro-American showdown. And while the climate news continues to feature the ever grimmer science, and the technologies that could reduce emissions without sending the whole economic edifice into macroeconomic shock, we’re also hearing, finally, that China has radically reduced its carbon emissions, even while its economy has boomed. And these days even the elite press is telling us that the citizens of the rich world, and in particular of the United States, use far, far more than their fair share of the Earth’s carbon-absorption capacity.

Here’s an example, from a front-page story in the June 12th edition of the New York Times. You wouldn’t have seen this last year, not unless it was in the Science section!

So thanks to the Bush Administration for making the stakes clearer, and especially for moving the equity question up the political agenda, and giving us a chance to talk, for once, of fundamental things!

Of course the administration’s particular fairness claim-that North and South must act simultaneously for the climate regime to be fair-is entirely absurd. The developing world is quite right to insist (along the lines of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which, incidentally, the US ratified under Bush the Elder) that we the rich made this mess in the first place, and that the South can justifiably refuse formal emissions limitations until we begin cleaning it up in earnest. No misleading statistic about rising Southern emissions can change this rather overwhelming moral reality, nor could it alter the inexorable political fact that the Kyoto Protocol, hard won after ten years of talks, is still the only game in town.

Nevertheless, Kyoto’s enemies brought it up, and we should welcome the opportunity to talk about it. There’s so much to say! This, after all, is a matter of global justice, and even though we don’t want to saddle the climate negotiations with the whole gruesome problem of global inequity, we can hardly expect that the subject won’t come up! And then there’s the elephant in the room-the fact that global greenhouse gas emissions are already far too high, and that must come down by about 70%, even while poor-world emissions rise, as they must, even under a green regime for the development of the South.

You might, if only as a thought experiment, think for a moment about global equality. If you do, you’ll see that the numbers work out to be pretty startling-to get to sustainable levels, the average citizen of the US would have to cut his or her emissions by over 90 percent. This number represents the percentage cut that each US citizen would have to make (by 1990 figures) before her per capita emissions had dropped to the point where they were “fair” in the most straightforward and naive sense of the term-that is, where s/he emitted only as much carbon as the global climate system would bear from each and every one of us.

In practice, of course, this isn’t going to happen, not at least for a long time. Instead, emissions trading and other “flexibility mechanisms” are going to be used to smooth the transition, and right now the key issue in the negotiations (as opposed to the back-room politics) is how to get those “flex-mechs” right. But however things come down, the inescapable fact is that we face a major problem of global distributional justice, one driven by geo-ecological dynamics that will respect neither rhetoric nor greenwashing, one that will admit no easy solutions, or respect anyone’s cherished political theories.

The complexities are mind boggling, but the bottom line clear-we in the rich world, and particularly in the US, consume far more than our share of the world’s atmospheric space, and the question, terrifying and inescapable, is how we’re going to reduce our consumption. It isn’t going to be easy, because the sky, as it turns out, is far smaller than any self-styled post-environmentalist could have imagined. The tap already needs to be turned down, but the Energy Information Agency is projecting that, by 2020, US carbon emissions could rise 50% above the 1990 baseline, or even higher. It isn’t likely to happen, but something is going to happen, and it probably won’t be good.

So sure, Kyoto, as Bush insists, is an inadequate solution to the problem. This, however, is a truth bracketed by lies, for while Kyoto isn’t global, and while its emissions caps were assigned by late-night negotiation rather than the transparent application of some comprehensible and ethically-justifiable principle, it has pointed out a trailhead that a large number of the world’s people would like to take. If the Republicans (or the Democrats, for that matter) balk, this will be a problem in the short-term, but it will also, perhaps paradoxically, radically increase the pressure on the world’s elites to find a new development path.

And if, for the sake of argument, we imagine that there’s a reform wing in the party of the elites, then certainly it’s far stronger in Europe than it is in the US. The June EU Summit, overshadowed as it was by the trans-Atlantic conflict over Kyoto, itself offered evidence of this, for its’ agenda featured a new European sustainable development strategy that not only mandates greenhouse gas emissions reductions, but also accelerates efforts to establish comprehensive transportation infrastructure limits and hazardous chemical controls. The specifics, presumably, are not beyond reproach, but there’s something comprehensive in the vision here, and like Kyoto, it’s an actual step in a new direction.

In the meantime, raise a glass to the Kyoto Protocol. Immediate ratification would of course be a wonderful thing, but even without it, we shouldn’t imagine that the game has been lost. We’re on the path, and as we proceed it will become increasing difficult for the Neanderthals-whether Americans, Europeans, or, for that matter, Third World elites-to justify a atmospheric Apartheid in which they can take what they will, and leave everyone else to muddle along with the remains. Kyoto is the handwriting on the wall, and a political fact that even the US cannot escape. If it is architecturally inadequate as a sustainable global warming treaty, this is, certainly, no news. Kyoto is what it had to be, and despite all its many, many flaws, it focused the discussion, and helped the world’s assembled scientists, activists, and diplomats to drag grim realities out into the light, and clarified, once again and perhaps once and for all, the need for a new global leadership, one free from the wagging-the-dog dynamics by which the right wing controls US politics.

A Small Conclusion

Is all this insufferably optimistic Perhaps. After all, Kyoto’s enemies may yet prevent its ratification, and for all the damage the consequent backlash would do to the Republicans, it would be a grim setback. And even if Kyoto becomes international law, it will take years to establish enforcement measures useful against free riders as powerful as the US. In the short term, Kyoto’s implementation language may wind up containing emission-trading rules so shoddy and sinks loopholes so large that the rich world (including Europe) can simply buy its way out of the need to make real emission reductions. The Dick Cheneys of the world (abetted by a global recession) could stall the solar/efficiency revolution yet again. The Europeans may even, as Bush apologists claim, only be pretending that they’re about to drive towards ratification.

But it sure doesn’t look that way. After the recent EU summit, European Commission President Romano Prodi emerged to announce that, “In any case, we [the EU] are going to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.” It’s not the move of a player about to back down, and why, in any case, should Europe do so Just now, the climate showdown offers Europe an immense political opportunity, one that it can only seize if its sticks close to the science. And that science is now so grim, with implications so inescapable, that mainstream voices routinely draw conclusions once left to green radicals to worry alone. The world’s emissions really must be cut by more than half, even while the aspirations of the poor are somehow satisfied, or, if you prefer the language of traditional realism, contained. Take this all together, and it’s a bottom line indeed.

No wonder that even the big US environmental groups have started to talk about the North’s outsized per-capita emissions. It’s suddenly past time to start preparing for the next phase of the greenhouse battle, and the stark global disparity of per-capita emissions is clearly going to define the field when that battle arrives. How can it not, when the task after Kyoto will be to define a framework for allocating emission rights in manner that’s not only global, but fair enough to be workable

So Kyoto may or may not be ratified, but the outcome of this most immediate battle is no longer the only issue. There’s no longer any doubt that the climate equity debate is finally about to hot up. The questions that remain concern only the exact timing, and the exact details that the debate will wear when it arrives.

— Tom Athanasiou (July 2001)