Bonn Voyage: Kyoto's Uncertain Revival

Bonn Voyage: Kyoto's Uncertain Revival

Mini Teaser: While the Bonn Conference revived an ailing global warming agreement, Kyoto's flaws render it a questionable approach to the longest of long-term politics.

by Author(s): Daniel Bodansky

Undoubtedly, most developing countries would have stayed out of the
negotiations if participating meant eventually accepting mandatory
emission limitations. Far from being a problem, however, this would
have had two benefits. First, the Kyoto negotiations would have been
more manageable, involving fewer countries and issues. They wouldnot
have been saddled with the baggage associated with UN negotiations,
including rigid negotiating groups and a disproportionate influence
for small countries. Second, the dynamic vis-Ã -vis developing
countries might have been quite different. If industrialized
countries had proceeded separately, at least some developing
countries might have decided to accept emission targets in order to
join the regime and sell their cheap emission reductions to Europe
and the United States. In contrast to the Kyoto regime, which gives
harder-line developing states such as China and India a veto,
industrialized countries would have kept control of admissions.
Indeed, over time, developing countries might have begun to clamor
for acceptance into the "club" in order to get the benefits of
emission trading. By starting small and building out over time, the
climate change regime could have developed along the same lines as
the GATT, with a comparatively small, like-minded group of states
negotiating the initial rules, allowing others to join as they became
willing to accept the obligations of membership.

Lesson 3: "America First"

It is almost a commonplace that successful foreign policy must grow
out of domestic political consensus. Certainly this is true in the
United States with respect to environmental issues, where virtually
every successful international regime has had its roots in U.S.
domestic law. The most spectacular success--the Montreal ozone
agreement--grew out of the U.S. regulation of chlorofluorocarbons,
the chief culprit in the destruction of the ozone layer, beginning
with a ban on aerosol spray cans in the late 1970s. Other relatively
successful international regimes--for example to limit oil pollution
from tankers, to regulate trade in endangered species, and to control
dangerous pesticides and chemicals--also built on U.S. domestic
efforts, rather than attempting to force the United States to change
its ways through the pressure of an international regime.

From the beginning, however, U.S. climate change policy followed a
different path, focusing on international rather than domestic
measures. To some degree, this reflected the understandable
reluctance of many governments to take domestic action without an
assurance that others would follow suit. Given the global causes of
climate change, if a country acts alone it simply drives up its own
costs without making a meaningful dent in solving the problem.
International action is necessary to make domestic climate policies
effective.

To a greater degree, however, the international focus of U.S. climate
policy reflected a lack of domestic political will. Although polls
consistently indicate that Americans are concerned about climate
change, climate change has until now never emerged as a major
political issue in the United States. Come election time, education,
social security and taxes have taken precedence in voters' minds.
Indeed, climate change usually does not even crack the top three
environmental concerns--clean water, clean air and urban sprawl. As a
result, climate activists have tended to view the international arena
as a potentially more favorable forum.

The only real attempt to enact binding domestic measures related to
climate change occurred early in the Clinton Administration, when
Clinton proposed a broad-based energy tax (the so-called "BTU tax")
as part of his first economic plan. Although Clinton billed the tax
primarily as a revenue rather than a climate change measure and made
it applicable to all energy sources, not just those that produce
greenhouse gases, the tax would have discouraged greenhouse gas
emissions by raising energy prices--and some climate change activists
saw it in that light. However, after a fierce lobbying campaign by
business interests led Clinton to abandon the tax in June 1993, the
administration became gun-shy about pushing for strong domestic
measures and instead shifted its focus to the international
negotiations. For the rest of his administration, Clinton's domestic
climate change policy relied exclusively on voluntary programs--"no
regrets" programs that are arguably in industry's self-interest
because they reduce energy costs--the same approach as that of the
first (and apparently the current) Bush Administration.

In part, the focus on the international negotiations was driven by
the inexorable momentum of the international climate agenda itself,
with major meetings practically every year, which kept climate change
on the front burner. Ironically, these regular meetings--which are
usually seen as a means of keeping pressure on states to act--helped
give Clinton a comparatively easy way out politically. As the
representative of the United States in international affairs, the
administration could temporarily satisfy its environmental
constituency by accepting strong international policies, without
having to undertake the extremely difficult political work of
convincing a conservative Congress to enact domestic legislation to
reduce emissions. Of course, this approach could not work
indefinitely, since international policies to combat global warming
eventually require domestic implementation. But given the complexity
and seemingly never-ending character of the negotiations, the
international approach was able to buy considerable time for an
administration reluctant to expend significant political capital at
home to combat climate change. In doing so, administration officials
could comfort themselves with the argument that they were making
progress in the only way possible, by putting in place an
international system that would be ready to use when America became
serious about climate change (as they were sure would happen
eventually).

Finally, the international focus of the Clinton Administration also
reflected a political calculation that international commitments such
as Kyoto could serve as a political lever to induce stronger domestic
action. If the administration could somehow get the United States to
join Kyoto, then the United States would no longer have any choice:
it would have to reduce its emissions in order to satisfy its
international commitments. In this way, Kyoto could provide the
necessary push to overcome domestic political apathy regarding
climate change.

This strategy, however, put the cart before the horse. If the United
States lacks the political will to take significant domestic action,
why would the Senate agree to a treaty requiring it to do so? The
fallacy in attempting to use international commitments to induce
domestic action is that international law itself depends on consent.
International law does not impose requirements; it sets forth rules
that states are free to accept or reject.

In other countries, international politics may in some cases drive
domestic politics. Indeed, many countries in Europe and elsewhere see
the international arena as a place to influence their own domestic
agenda as well as to pressure others. Environmental ministries, in
particular, have learned to use international processes as a way to
achieve outcomes that other ministries might not otherwise support.
But for the United States, domestic politics drives international
politics, not vice versa. The United States is comparatively
impervious to international pressure, and the system of separation of
powers makes it difficult for an Executive Branch department or
agency to use the international arena as a way to push Congress into
domestic action. Even if the administration were willing to accept a
treaty such as Kyoto, it must get the advice and consent of
two-thirds of the Senate. As Kyoto illustrates, this is next to
impossible in the absence of a strong domestic political consensus.

Of course, international negotiations can sometimes push the envelope
outward at the margins; they need not always precisely mirror what
has been agreed domestically. But they need a domestic foundation in
order to get traction, and cannot get too far out in front of the
domestic center of gravity. Kyoto violated both of these precepts
and, as a result, was on life support domestically long before Bush
pulled the plug.

In moving forward, climate change activists would do better to focus
their efforts on building a domestic political consensus to reduce
emissions rather than on the international negotiations. The current
international backlash against Bush's repudiation of Kyoto has helped
create new domestic momentum to address climate change. But
ultimately the decision to limit U.S. emissions must come from
within. Although there is much to criticize in the Bush
Administration's handling of the climate change issue, one thing it
got right was to focus initially, in the Cabinet review, on what the
United States should do domestically to address the problem. Thus
far, it has failed to articulate a credible approach, but, in the
wake of Bush's repudiation of Kyoto, a serious debate has finally
begun in Congress about how the United States should address climate
change at home. If this results in domestic requirements to reduce
emissions, even if only modestly, it would be a significant step
forward.

Lesson 4: It's the Economy, Stupid

Emissions targets such as those contained in Kyoto commit countries
to particular environmental results regardless of the economic costs.
In the case of Kyoto, the costs for the United States would be highly
uncertain (with estimates varying by a factor of ten). At the low
end, Kyoto would add merely a few cents to a gallon of gasoline; at
the high end, it would impose higher costs than the OPEC oil squeeze
of the 1970s, which sent the U.S. economy into recession (and much of
the rest of the world economy with it).

Essay Types: Essay