Mainstream scientists have been warning for years that by burning oil, coal and other fossil fuels, humans have created a blanket of carbon gases that traps heat in our atmosphere and warms the planet. The last two years were the hottest in recorded history, and recent wild weather patterns suggest that this global warming will bring with it an ever expanding plague of economic and human catastrophes.
World leaders have accepted the principle that urgent action is needed to drastically cut back on carbon gas emissions if we are to even begin to address the problem. That's why they negotiated the Kyoto Protocol on climate change two years ago, requiring that the industrialized nations over the next decade reduce their output of carbon gases to 5 percent below the 1990 level. The U.S. is slated for a 7 percent reduction, on the basis that it is the greatest culprit, producing some 25 percent of all greenhouse gases despite housing only 4 percent of the world's population.
Although the Clinton administration helped negotiate the treaty and signed it last year, Kyoto has plenty of American critics. Governor George W. Bush for one, who, like his oil industry backers, remains unconvinced of the scientific basis for all this global warming stuff despite the consensus among mainstream scientists. And they complain that developing nations aren't required by Kyoto to do enough, even though everyone agrees that the industrialized countries have created the lion's share of the problem.
But Bush's reservations may well be closer to the popular instinct in the U.S. after all, it's going to require wrenching, expensive changes in American consumer behavior to achieve the Kyoto target. After all, right now we're going in the opposite direction. Forget about 7 percent below 1990 levels the government's own Energy Information Agency predicts that at current rates of consumption, U.S. carbon gas emission levels will be 33 percent above 1990 levels by the time the 2010 deadline rolls around.
For all the sunny Clinton administration waffle about win-win solutions, job creation through emissions cuts and other Pollyannaish prescriptions, the truth is that only a painful adjustment of the contemporary American lifestyle could achieve that goal. Converting old coal-burning power stations to more energy-efficient forms of electricity production, for example, will be costly. The gas-guzzling SUV can't be the vehicle of choice for the middle class in a nation cutting back its gasoline consumption. And so on.
But the recent panic over rising gasoline prices highlighted the political improbability of either a Bush or a Gore administration taking the tough steps necessary to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Last summer, American consumers went into revolt when the gasoline price crept past $2 a gallon, and Washington was obliged to scramble for remedies. And yet, $2 a gallon may not be high enough: European success in curbing their own carbon gas emissions has relied in part on taxing gasoline so heavily as much as 75 percent of the pump price in Britain goes to tax, compared with about 8 percent in the U.S. that consumers pay more than $4 a gallon. And that serves as a powerful incentive to drive less (and use a more energy-efficient vehicle when you do). Good luck to anyone trying to sell that idea in the U.S.
George W. Bush may be a global-warming flat-earther, but Al Gore isn't quite the planet's knight in shining armor. He may be a deeply concerned environmentalist, but that doesn't mean he's about to do anything as politically risky as telling Americans the truth about global warming and what they'll have to do if they want to leave behind a comfortable planet for their grandchildren's grandchildren. Instead, the Clinton administration has prattled on sunnily about business-driven solutions in which everybody gets to maintain their current lifestyles, while Detroit miraculously comes up with all manner of energy-efficient electronic engines to power their SUVs. This is not for a moment to underestimate the importance of such innovations, but simply to suggest that they're only going to scratch the surface of the problem.
Not surprising, then, that the Clinton administration's approach to the Kyoto climate change treaty has been, from the outset, to dilute and evade it as far as possible. Gore's negotiating team at the 1998 Kyoto talks managed to haggle the Europeans down from requiring a 15 percent reduction from 1990 emission levels to 5 percent. Then, when it came to negotiating how to implement the treaty, one of Washington's pet mechanisms was the trading of pollution rights (countries who fail to meet their own targets could pay other countries to reduce theirs below the required rate, thereby bringing the overall global output down to the necessary levels).
In the latest round of talks, Washington had a new proposal counting forests, which supposedly serve as "carbon sinks" by soaking up greenhouse gases, as part of a country's emission reductions. Indeed, the U.S. negotiators went in suggesting that the scale of U.S. forests was sufficient to cut its emission reduction target in half. Needless to say, the Europeans aren't having any of it, dismissing the proposals as a specious attempt to let the world's biggest polluter off the hook.
The "carbon sink" proposal looks set to send any chance of implementing Kyoto down the drain. Instead, it will live on in that guilty limbo where we all store those New Year's resolutions we know we're never going to keep. The Clinton administration may have signed the treaty, but it did so safe in the knowledge that it wouldn't have a prayer in the Senate. After all, Al Gore wasn't about to become the candidate urging Americans to trade in their SUVs for battery-powered cars, and if the Europeans weren't going to accept America's forests as the answer to its carbon gas emissions, they'd just have to go whistle.
But the U.S. aversion to Kyoto is about a lot more than Gore and Bush; there's a cultural issue at work here that cuts to the very heart of the American notion of freedom. People don't want the government fixing things unless they're pretty darn sure that those things are broke. And the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and climatic catastrophe is far from obvious to the layman. I, for instance, care about global warming, but I don't think about it every time I refill the gas tank of my thirsty old Jeep Wagoneer.
Worse still, the fact that the hole in the ozone layer was recently reported as being larger now than it was 13 years ago when CFC outputs were curbed suggests that some of the environmental damage wrought by human behavior today may take many years to manifest. It could take a decade or more of climatic crisis to generate a widespread sense of urgency about changing lifestyles. Politicians may ultimately be forced to wait. The planet, unfortunately, will not.