The Kyoto protocol no-show can still go green

CLIMATE change is the most severe problem that we are facing today — more serious even than the threat of terrorism." That is how Sir David King, the United Kingdom’s chief scientist, stated the problem. Yet, the dual threats of terrorism and climate disruption have received incomparably different treatment in US policies. Washington has erected a huge apparatus to combat terrorism, but has thus far done little to slow the buildup of climate-changing atmospheric gases. Today, as the Kyoto Protocol has come into effect, the US absence is both conspicuous — and tragic.

By James Gustave Speth

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Published: Fri 18 Feb 2005, 10:38 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:11 PM

Since 9/11, advocates of preventive action on climate change have had to struggle harder than usual for public and political attention. Neglect of other issues has been part of the collateral damage of the war on terror. Evidence is rapidly mounting of the devastating consequences of the unchecked releases of climate-altering gases, but the US has again elected national leaders who have shown little recognition of any existing threat.

Will the Bush administration’s positions change for the better — or at all? In addition to shunning the Kyoto Protocol, it has opposed the McCain-Lieberman climate bill and parts of the Clean Air Act. Due to past US negligence, irreparable damage will unfold in the decades ahead. The priority now should be to prevent the situation from deteriorating further. Therefore, concerned parties must develop a strategy that does not depend on Washington’s cooperation, but makes the administration’s opposition increasingly difficult to maintain.

Fortunately, the outlines of such a strategy are visible, in part because of current efforts to move the US in the right directions. What follows is a ten-point plan of action that builds on the many encouraging initiatives already under way.

1. Engage both state and locality in action. With the path forward blocked in Washington, states and localities nationwide have moved to fill the breach. Twenty-eight states have developed or are developing action plans to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The goal for the immediate future should be to strengthen and deepen state and local commitments and actions.

2. Use carrots and sticks with business. Despite federal inaction, many corporations are taking significant, voluntary initiatives to reduce their GHG emissions. The anticipation for more stringent carbon regulation, shareholder and consumer pressure, the threat of eventual liability for damages, as well as public perception issues can all make great contributions.

3. Push greening of the financial sector. The financial and insurance sectors are waking up to climate risks. Institutional investors, large lenders, and insurers are becoming increasingly sensitised to financial risks (and opportunities) presented by climate change. These developments should be encouraged.

4. Urge adoption of a sensible national energy strategy. National energy legislation will be on the Congressional agenda in the coming session. Congress should scrap last term’s stalled energy bill and write a new bill based on the several recent bipartisan efforts to build consensus on national energy policy to move the US towards a low-carbon economy.

5. Pass the McCain-Lieberman bill. The McCain-Lieberman bill, modest by international standards, seeks only to cut US greenhouse gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2010. It is the best hope of getting the US on the path to emissions reduction. The bill garnered 43 Senate votes in 2003, but requires broader public support to guarantee its passage.

6. Extend hands across the seas. The Kyoto Protocol signatories, now including Russia, represent an international coalition that can press the United States to start a credible GHG emissions reduction programme and join the climate treaty process. The European Union could also invite US states to participate in its cap-and-trade GHG market. If it is too late for the US to comply strictly with the Kyoto Protocol, it is certainly not too late to begin rapidly down that path — and catch up during the more ambitious post-2012 phase of GHG reductions.

7. Promote climate-friendly cooperation with developing countries. With China’s emissions now already half those of the US and Asian emissions almost equal to US levels, future agreements under the climate treaty should provide for developing country commitments on climate and GHGs. Such agreements need not seek (yet) actual reduction in GHG emissions from the developing world as a whole. International efforts on multiple fronts are needed to meet these goals.

8. Encourage climate-friendly consumers and institutions. Local groups such as educational institutions, religious organisations, and medical centers can make a big difference by establishing specific targets in reducing GHG emissions.

9. Impose limits on coal. Plans are being laid to construct 118 coal-fired power plants in 36 US states, and American coal use is projected to increase more than 40 per cent over the next 20 years. Before launching these new operations, a combination of national, state, and local efforts will be necessary to ensure that environmental risks are taken into account. Environmental and public health groups can collaborate in such a strategy.

10. Build a movement of concerned citizens. More than anything else, the US needs a new citizens movement — one that brings together all concerned parties to take steps as individual citizens and communities to realise sustainability in everyday life.

Only the scientific community has the credibility to take the climate issue to the public and to the politicians, but it has not been as outspoken as it should be. A media-based public education campaign on climate could learn from earlier efforts on drugs, smoking, Aids and drunk driving. Initiative should be built among those who voted for President Bush to communicate to the president that they did not vote for his energy or climate policies. A concerted and spirited effort by American citizens and public officials is necessary not only to correct the US absence from the Kyoto camp, but also to avert a danger that is worse than the threat of terrorism.

J. Gus Speth, the Dean of Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, has served as the administrator of the UNDP from 1993 to 1999, and is the author of Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment (Yale, 2004).

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