First Principles April 2008

Sins of Emission

Kyoto was a sham and a failure—so how has it become a model for future anti-warming efforts?
China coal
MINERS SHOVEL coal in Xiahuayuan county in north China's Hebei province.

Seven years into the administration of George W. Bush—what some critics have taken to calling “the reign of error”—it has become almost irresistibly tempting for many Americans, and even more foreigners, to reflexively mistrust whatever the president advocates, and to favor whatever he stands against. As his days in office wind down, it’s looking more and more as if Bush might have been a uniter after all.

Even in this environment, one must look upon the political rehabilitation of the Kyoto Protocol—a misbegotten concept and an abject failure in practice—as a signal achievement of this administration. Early on, even Kyoto’s champions saw large flaws. Al Gore, speaking for the administration that signed the deal in 1998, said then that the agreement should not go to the Senate for ratification “until key developing nations participate in this effort … This is a global problem that will require a global solution.” But many of those countries (China among them) never did participate meaningfully—and the Senate had effectively scuttled the pact anyway the year before, by a vote of 95–0.

The lopsidedness of the vote was not surprising; the burden that Kyoto would have placed on the country was politically indefensible. According to a calculation by the Yale economist William Nordhaus, the original protocol yielded negligible benefits for the United States, at a cost of more than $5 trillion. Europe faced net costs, too, but only about one-fifth as large. As seen from Europe, this bargain may have been more about punishing America for its energy-squandering way of life than about curbing global emissions of greenhouse gases.

Yet beginning in 2001, by opposing the agreement so obtusely, by offering no plausible alternative, and by denying for so long that climate change was even a significant problem, the Bush administration began to shield Kyoto from criticism and to energize its supporters. Bathed in the glow of Bush’s disdain, an enterprise that was doomed from the start came to look like a thwarted triumph. By 2003, after the president had killed any prospect of American involvement, more than 90 percent of Americans were telling pollsters that they had heard of global warming; 88 percent, lacking any other tangible alternative, supported the protocol as a way to reduce warming’s impact. International talks are now under way to negotiate a new climate-change treaty. Once this administration has departed, it is widely believed, the world can build on the success that might have been.

In fact, the best chance of progress is to see Kyoto as the disaster that it was. Its impact on greenhouse-gas concentrations has so far been minimal, and not just because the United States stood aside. With every other rich country signed on, the decades-old upward trend in emissions has not slowed. Japan and Canada are hopelessly above their quotas. In western Europe, only three countries are now on pace to hit theirs. With time running out, others say that they will make the necessary policy changes by 2012, when Kyoto expires—but then, it’s easy to say that.

Presented by

Clive Crook is an Atlantic senior editor.

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