Roundtable
We're All Environmentalists Now ... Right?
Gregg Easterbrook
Round Two - September 15, 2000

So everyone agrees more needs to be done. But what, specifically? The main item on the environmental politics agenda right now is the Kyoto global warming treaty. Let's ponder it.

The draft was finished in December, 1997, and signed -- the initial symbolic-only step -- by nearly all nations, amidst considerable verbiage about everyone's deep, enlightened commitment to dramatic greenhouse-effect reform, etc. Since then no major country has ratified Kyoto, not even greener-than-thou Denmark, not even Japan, which hosted the treaty conference! President Clinton

From Post & Riposte:

"I maintain that when it comes to global ecosystem health, we are far from any coordinated solutions. There are a few reasons for this, not the least of which is the difficulty in defining ecosystem health. Other problems include the lack of a global environmental organization along the lines of the WTO (UNEP doesn't count!), the complex nature of the environment itself, and political economies which focus on the short-term. Bush and Gore can't do much about these problems, even if the Earth is indeed 'in the Balance.' All leaders can really do is move us incrementally along a verrrrrry long policy horizon to reorganize our societies, economies and env'l policy itself along more sustainable lines. As a policy problem, no government or society has ever faced such a daunting challenge.

That said, in the interest of full disclosure, I'll be voting for Gore, since I think he's at least smart enough to understand the true nature of environmental issues, and can help set the tone to begin addressing them."
--Steve Danyo - 02:56am EST, Sep 14, 2000.

What do you think? Join the conversation.

has never submitted Kyoto to the Senate, since he knows that there is zero chance of ratification (at least at the moment), the Senate having already voted 95-0 not to ratify any global-warming treaty that is not binding on the developing world -- and Kyoto is not. (Some Kyotophiles cling to the literalist argument that the treaty is "binding" on developing nations because they must agree to report emissions statistics. But they need not agree to cuts, which is the crux.)

Kyoto, as written, can seem fatally flawed: if it went into effect, any Western emissions reductions would be swamped by increases from the developing world. Some economists think the treaty might actually encourage the developing world to increase greenhouse-effect emissions -- to stage a crash program of increases! -- because energy-intensive industry would flee the West for the developing world, where it would be much less carefully regulated.

Even if kinks such as that can be worked out, Kyoto seems unpromising, for the standard interpretation is that the treaty would require the United States and the European Union to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by about 40 percent relative to how much those emissions would grow without the agreement. Though a post-fossil-fuel economy is sure to happen, and is to be desired, requiring such a big cut in carbon dioxide quickly would almost certainly harm the economies of the West, in return for marginal and perhaps zero global-warming benefits. By the reckoning of the pro-Kyoto scientist Bert Bolin, even if the treaty is ratified and enforced, the best case is that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would by reduced by just one percent by 2015.

That way of looking at Kyoto makes it seem pointless to proceed further -- and makes it seem that, if Al Gore is elected and goes through with his promise to fight for Kyoto in the Senate, the treaty would become his equivalent of Clinton's 1993 push for health-care reform, an early political debacle.

Keep your eyes peeled for an entirely new view of the Kyoto treaty to develop soon, however -- one based on a new, though disputed, analysis of the science.

Last month James Hansen, of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and several colleagues published a study suggesting it may be wrong to assume that carbon dioxide drives artificial global warming. The warming effects of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels may be real but exaggerated, Hansen's team proposed, which in part may explain why the world has not warmed as much in this century as greenhouse-effect computer models projected that it would. Methane and other gases may be just as significant, at least in the next decade or two.

Just techno talk? Hardly. First, the notion that carbon dioxide is not as dangerous as now assumed has credibility coming from Hansen, since he is one of Gore's gurus: Hansen published some of the first studies, in the early 1980s, linking carbon dioxide to climate trends, and in 1988 memorably declared that scientists were "99 percent certain" that artificial warming had begun. (A statement for which Hansen was roundly denounced in science circles; there is much more uncertainty than that.)

Second, Hansen's findings suggest that action to reduce the greenhouse effect is far from daunting: in fact, it may be surprisingly practical. Through the next few decades at least, until clean energy forms develop, it is hard to imagine running the world without lots of fossil fuels, and hence lots of carbon dioxide. Methane emissions, on the other hand, have no economic utility. Somewhere around half of global "anthropogenic" methane emissions (there are natural methane emissions, too) originate with leaks in natural-gas pipelines and gas exploration, and from poorly managed landfills. Such emissions might be dramatically reduced at a far lower cost than it would take to make big dents in carbon-dioxide emissions. Another study, due out this week, makes similar claims about the anti-global warming potential of reducing oxides of nitrogen released by agriculture -- also emissions that don't have any economic utility.

So what will happen to the Kyoto treaty if the focus is shifted from restricting use of fossil fuels -- a bruising prospect at best -- to restricting such things as methane leaks, which nobody favors anyway? What will happen is, wham bang, suddenly the treaty will look attractive. Kyoto will start looking good to mainstream Democrats, to Denmark and Japan, perhaps even to the Republican Party, which would be able to vote for an anti-methane version of Kyoto without harming petroleum or coal interests. (The treaty includes a provision that allows the focus of reform to shift to gases other than carbon dioxide.) An anti-methane Kyoto treaty might even sound good to those "powerful interests" Gore says are sabotaging reform. They'd be taking positive action, without jeopardizing fossil-fuel consumption.

There are objections to Hansen's study: among them, that if he's right now, then he's admitting he was wrong before, and does this mean we should trust him more or trust him less? Also, the study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a journal with a lesser stature than Science or Nature. Scientists almost always take their strongest work to Science or Nature, because peer-review rules at these journals are extremely strict. Scientists sometimes publish in the more lenient Proceedings when they aren't sure the paper will withstand criticism.

But if the Hansen theory holds up, the politics of greenhouse-effect reform might be transformed quite rapidly. By winter of next year a Gore Administration, or even a Bush Administration, might be pressing for rapid ratification of Kyoto or something like it, and many business groups might agree. Already, on the right, Hansen is being attacked with the argument that either there is no global-warming problem, or there is a problem and carbon dioxide from fossil fuels must be the cause, meaning drastic cuts must be imposed. Elements of the right are turning toward this argument (which, just last year, was the far-left position) because they think it leaves "no problem" as the only palatable answer. Others are turning to it because they can't abide the notion that a Third Way solution on global warming is about to break out. But it might be.

Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- September 20, 2000
Eileen Claussen | Gregg Easterbrook | Mary A. Gade | Bill McKibben

Round Two -- September 15, 2000
Eileen Claussen | Gregg Easterbrook | Mary A. Gade | Bill McKibben

Round One -- September 13, 2000
Eileen Claussen | Gregg Easterbrook | Mary A. Gade | Bill McKibben

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What do you think? Join the debate in a special conference of Post & Riposte. We'll highlight selected readers' remarks as the Roundtable progresses.

Gregg EasterbrookGregg Easterbrook is a senior editor of The New Republic and Beliefnet.com and a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly. His books include A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism (1995) and Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt (1998).

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.