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Enough Is Enough

The Bush Administration's outrageous behavior at the Buenos Aires climate talks makes it official: the U.S. has become the world's latest rogue nation.
 
 
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The spectacle of the United States single-handedly destroying the mid-December meeting in Buenos Aires on global warming offered further proof, if such were needed, that the world needs to confront this rogue state. Representatives of 200 nations had gathered to develop a plan for further reducing greenhouse gases (GHG) after 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires.

According to press reports, the Bush Administration's recalcitrance shocked and dismayed even longtime friends and allies like Australia. U.S. obstructionism ranged from the sublime (insisting that the Conference change the phrase "climate change" to the more ambiguous "climate variability") to the ridiculous (strongly backing Saudi Arabia's request for compensation for lost revenue resulting from reduced global oil consumption).

Our nation's antics so infuriated many participants that an exasperated Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists told Reuters, "Frankly, it might be a lot easier to do it without the U.S. and the Saudis in the room."

U.S. antagonism is not going to change anytime soon. Keep in mind that only a few months after the Kyoto Protocol was sent to countries for ratification in early 1997, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution by the astonishing vote of 95-0 opposing ratification unless poor developing countries were required to achieve similar GHG reductions within the same time frame.

In January 2001, one of George W. Bush's first executive decisions was to withdraw completely from the Kyoto process. Since the U.S. generates a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases and since the Kyoto treaty could go into effect only when countries generating 55 percent of the world's GHGs had ratified it, most observers believed Bush's action meant the death of the accords.

But other countries persevered and by late October 2004, Russia's ratification achieved the necessary 55 percent. After seven years of trying, the Kyoto Protocols will go into effect on Feb. 16, 2005. Thirty industrialized nations have committed themselves to reduce greenhouse gases by 2010 by at least 5.2 percent below their 1990 levels. Some, like the European Union, promise an overall 8 percent reduction.

Meanwhile, in November the American people engaged in their own kind of ratification process by supporting President Bush's go-it-alone, in-your-face internationalist stance.

Which leads to an important question. What should nations that believe global warming is a clear and present danger do about the U.S.? For starters, our conduct at Buenos Aires should make them think twice before again inviting us to the negotiating table.

But to effectively achieve Kyoto's goals, the world may well have to go beyond simply offering us a symbolic cold shoulder. In a recent article, Professor Scott Barrett of Johns Hopkins University analyzed a number of international environmental treaties.

"What makes treaties work?" he asked. His answer? "(I)f nonparticipation cannot be deterred, then compliance with an agreement becomes a moot issue...Noncompliance will only be deterred if the act of noncompliance is punished."

Professor Barrett singles out the Montreal Protocol as a model international treaty. Its objective was to reduce the production and consumption of ozone depleting substances (e.g. chlorofluorocarbons). The treaty went into effect on Jan. 1, 1989. By all accounts it has been remarkably effective. A key reason is that it punished noncompliance. Signatories were allowed to impose sanctions on countries that continued to use ozone-depleting chemicals. Some went so far as to ban products from such countries.

The Kyoto treaty is a more nuanced affair. Given the difficulties of passage, the framers focused more on timelines, goals and process and less on penalties. Nevertheless, there seems room for some level of sanctions.

One could argue that those countries that aggressively pursue Kyoto's goals will benefit no matter what the U.S. does. They will nurture industries and technologies that will be in high demand in a high-priced and scarce fossil fuel future. Already there is indication that this is occurring. Energy-efficient and high-performance hybrid electric vehicles come from Japan. U.S. wind turbines are made in Denmark. Solar cells increasingly come from German and Japanese corporations.

But in the short term, nations and businesses that behave like good planetary citizens may pay a higher price for their goods. This could put them at a competitive disadvantage with environmental renegades like the United States. If that should occur, one can easily imagine that frustration with this country, coupled with the already existing and growing hostility to our international actions, could lead nations to take punitive actions.

What might these be?

One would be to prohibit U.S. companies from participating in the rapidly growing global carbon credit trading system. A tiny private system already exists that allows a company in Canada, say, to buy carbon credits by paying farmers in Iowa to change their cultivation practices so they build up carbon in the soil. Kyoto promises a thriving international exchange. Kyoto signatories are allowed to meet their greenhouse gas reduction commitments by buying credits, that is, by buying greenhouse gas reductions that occur outside their countries. But the rules appear to allow this only with other Kyoto signatories or with developing nations.

Carbon offsets can still be traded within the United States, or perhaps between the United States and other non-signatories like Australia. But the inability of these to be traded globally will have a chilling effect.

Another possibility would be to reserve the benefits from the investment-oriented provisions of Kyoto to signatories. For example, Kyoto contains a Clean Development mechanism. This is an investment fund to help developing nations create sustainable, low carbon emitting technologies. It is similar to the fund that allowed developing nations to phase out their use of chlorofluorocarbons under the Montreal Protocol. Such a mechanism could contain a provision that any goods and services purchased with its funds must be limited to businesses from signatory countries.

Kyoto also has created an Adaptation Fund. Established in 2001, this fund is to help developing countries cope with the negative effects of climate change (e.g. low-lying island nations). Any expenditures from the Fund could also be limited to signatory nations.

A recent precedent exists for limiting contracts under Kyoto to those who support Kyoto's goals. After the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration announced that none of the reconstruction contracts would be given to businesses from nations that did not actively support the war.

Finally, there could be a worldwide boycott of American-made goods and services. The possibility is low, to be sure. It is doubtful that the Kyoto treaty, unlike the Montreal Protocol, allows signatories to undertake such a step. And nations, eying the enormous American market, would fear retaliation. But what cannot be done by nations can be accomplished by a nation's citizens.

Although the events in Buenos Aires were given little media play, they may, in retrospect, mark the historical moment when the rest of the world decided that enough is enough. And realized that tough love may be the only way to deal with a destructive child.

David Morris is co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota.