Slouching To Kyoto

Everybody’s talking about the weather. President Clinton seems ready – at long last – to do something about it

In recent years, global climate change has emerged as a threat of potentially cataclysmic dimensions. Changing precipitation patterns will threaten now-fertile croplands. A rise in insect-borne and infectious disease is expected – and it is not only insects and microbes that will travel more. As climate change wreaks havoc, people will migrate in search of sanctuary, and in an overcrowded world, this is a prescription for chaos.

Extreme weather events – hurricanes, tornadoes, floods – are expected to increase in frequency and severity. Rising oceans will swamp low-lying areas. Seventeen percent of Bangladesh is threatened, as are 9,000 square miles of coastland in the US. Entire island nations will disappear.

This December, diplomats from 166 nations will convene in Kyoto, Japan to agree on a global strategy for reducing ‘anthropogenic' – human-produced – greenhouse gas emissions, which scientific consensus now accepts as the main cause of climate change. The gathering will culminate a United Nations process that began at the 1992 Earth Summit with the enactment of the global Framework Convention on Climate Change, and has continued with stops in Bonn, Berlin, and elsewhere.

With the possible exception of the fossil-fuel industry, the US has not made many friends during this process. The Clinton Administration has been taken to task by the European Union, the Alliance of Small Island States, and others for failing to exercise leadership on the climate change issue and even for being outright obstructionist.

One set of problems involves performance. As a signatory to the Framework Convention, the US pledged to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. However, according to Department of Energy data, US emission levels have risen to at least 8 percent above the 1990 level, with the figure projected to exceed 13 percent by the year 2000.

US negotiating positions have raised hackles as well. The country is waffling on its commitment, made in 1992 and reaffirmed in 1995, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions ahead of the developing countries. And the US has so far refused to commit to a specific emissions reduction target. This is in sharp contrast to the Alliance of Small Island States, which has proposed a 20 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2005, and the European Union, which wants to bring emissions to 15 percent under 1990 levels by the year 2010, with half of those reductions coming by 2005.

The US isn't the only country that's been recalcitrant – Australia, a major coal exporter, has threatened to pull out of the negotiations entirely. But more is expected of the US, which has only 4 percent of the world's population but produces over 20 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

The heat is on

Not all the news is bad, though. With things heating up in the final countdown to the Kyoto conference, the Clinton administration's attitude toward climate change seems to be taking a turn for the better. “Clinton appears to have become a convert,” says Ross Gelbspan, the Pulitzer-winning author of The Heat Is On, a hard-hitting work that sounds the alarm about global climate change and charges carbon interests with attempting to undermine the debate through a disinformation campaign.

According to Kelly Sims, Ozone Action's science policy director, Clinton got the climate-change gospel through a bruising series of diplomatic encounters earlier this year. At the G-8 economic summit in Denver this past June, he was attacked by other participants for having neither targets nor a timetable for greenhouse gas reductions.

In that same month, some 2,700 scientists, including three Nobel laureates, issued a statement of concern about global climate change. A few days later, the United Nations' Rio+5 gathering was held in New York City to review progress – or the lack thereof – since the 1992 Earth Summit. Here, too, according to Sims, “even more pressure was placed on the US.” The heads of state of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom objected to the US position in a manner that Sims says “wasn't even diplomatic.”

President Clinton was one of the last speakers at Rio+5, and his speech indicated that he had finally gotten the message. “Frankly,” he acknowledged, “our record since Rio is not sufficient. We have been blessed with high rates of growth, ... but that has led to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. ... So we must do better, and we will.”

To that end, Clinton announced a four-part program to ramp up the national commitment. First, he pledged $1 billion in assistance to developing countries to support energy efficiency, alternative energy, and improved resource management. Second, he promised to “do more to encourage private investment to meet environmental standards.” Third, he pledged to launch a program to install solar panels on one million roofs by 2010.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Clinton committed to a massive public education program to “convince the American people and the Congress that the climate change problem is real and imminent.”

This will not be easy. For the most part, the US public treats unlimited energy consumption as an inalienable right, right up there alongside freedom of speech and the press, and the powerful carbon lobby does its best to encourage this attitude in Congress.

Recent advertisements sponsored by the carbon lobby complained, “The United Nations is negotiating a climate treaty that will require severe restrictions on the amount of energy we use. And it puts the entire burden on the US and a few other countries.”

In a parallel development, a Sense-of-the-Senate resolution favoring a firm stance toward the developing countries was approved by 95-0. This resolution, which was sponsored by Senator Robert Byrd, a Democrat from the coal-producing state of West Virginia, did not carry legal weight but delivered a powerful warning shot across the bows of the US Kyoto delegation.

None of this has been missed by the Clinton Administration, which publicly frets about the favorable treatment accorded developing countries.

On the road

Still, the newly motivated president is doing what he can. In July of this year, the president convened a meeting with eminent scientists to discuss climate change. He emerged telling the press that he found the scientific reasons for concern “clear and compelling.” In August, he brought 10 CEOs from Fortune 500 companies to discuss the business implications of climate change. In September, he met with the heads of leading environmental organizations. In October, he brought business leaders, scientists, labor leaders, academics, and others to a day-long conference. And the administration arranged for television meteorologists to be briefed on climate change.

In addition, the administration has been conducting a series of regional workshops to build awareness of the local impacts of climate change. Dirk Forrester, chair of the White House Climate Change Task Force, emphasizes the two-way nature of these communications. “We want to improve public awareness about the science of climate change, and we also want to increase public involvement in the policy-making process.”

Blair Henry, chair of the Northwest Council on Climate Change, a citizen group, confirms that public participation is now considered crucial, and that's a very important shift. “Federal officials are also viewing this shift as revolutionary,” he says. “Things are really starting to snowball politically.”

And now, Kyoto

Precisely what all this will mean in terms of actual policy changes is anybody's guess. In a June speech, Clinton pledged to bring to Kyoto “a strong American commitment to realistic and binding limits that will significantly reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases.”

That may be good news, and then again it may not – Clinton's use of ‘realistic' in this context is worrisome. Ozone Action's Kelly Sims believes that a weak agreement could act as a palliative, reducing grassroots concern and ensuring that activity remains limited to an emotionally reassuring but ineffectual rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic. If the parties fail to reach agreement, however, that could trigger an international grassroots outcry. In Sims' view, this is what it might take to produce a truly effective agreement.

Ross Gelbspan, author of The Heat Is On, is also concerned about the chasm between the 5-20 percent reductions that are on the negotiating table and the much more drastic cuts in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions that the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believes are required to stabilize the climate at current concentration levels.

“A reduction [of 50-70 percent in fossil fuel emissions],” he has written, “means, in essence, the virtual extinction of the $2 trillion-a-year coal and oil industries.” Gelbspan has called for a “global Manhattan project” to replace fossil fuels with alternative energy technologies.

Whatever the outcome of the Kyoto gathering, climate change is already transforming more than the weather. For one thing, it has undone the united front generally presented by business lobbies when confronted with policies that could drastically change business as usual. The insurance industry, which has seen its weather-related liabilities climb from an average $2 billion per year in the 1980s to $12 billion annually in this decade, is openly sparring with the fossil-fuel industry about the need to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Even the once-monolithic petroleum industry is showing rifts. Last May, British Petroleum's CEO John Browne announced a comprehensive program to address the challenge of climate change (see YES! #3). And, in late September, he called for the imposition of energy taxes to reduce energy use.

Meanwhile, alternative energy is taking off. The solar industry is expanding at over 25 percent per year, and wind power is booming, too. There are a lot of reasons for this – prices are falling and the technology is improving – but the long-term need to mitigate climate change is also an important factor.

What's especially noteworthy about all this is that it has been happening without much public awareness of the dangers of climate change. That's where President Clinton's public education program may really make a difference. Right now, the US public is largely uninterested in energy issues. A few more Red River floods, however, and that could change. With a lift from an extreme-weather tailwind, Clinton could end up getting more than he reckoned for – an aroused public, agitating for real change.

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