Climate Treaty Deadlock Shows Lack of Consensus and Common Sense


THE HAGUE, The Netherlands – The picture of the climate treaty negotiations in the Netherlands last week that most people will remember best is that of U.S. negotiator Frank Loy with a berry-filled pie all over his face. It's appropriate.

From the start, the U.N.'s Sixth Session of the Conference of the Parties in The Hague was mostly about trying to make the United States look bad. For reasons of both politics and economics, not environment, Europe pursued remedies to the perceived risk of global warming that it knew from the start the United States was bound to reject. The fact about global climate change is that while there's a consensus among scientists that the world has warmed in the last quarter century, there is tremendous scientific uncertainty about how much climate is likely to change in the future and what precisely humans role in that change is.

A group of seven scientists brought together by S. Fred Singer, an atmospheric physicist who was the first director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service and most recently chief scientist for the U.S. Department of Transportation, convened outside The Hague and pointed to data from land-based monitoring in the United States and Europe shows no warming in those places in recent years. They also say that, contrary to popular claims, severe weather events have not increased.

Meanwhile, discussions in Holland were premised on the implementation of the Kyoto protocol negotiated three years ago in Japan that all participants knew was a non-starter politically in the United States.

That agreement calls for the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent from 1990 levels. To get there, though, the agreement took an odd route. The United States was told to cut its emissions by 7 percent, and Europe by 8 percent. But exempted were developing nations, including China, a huge emitter of greenhouse gases.

The U.S Senate prior to Kyoto had unanimously passed a resolution requiring that any climate treaty the administration submitted to it must involve developing nations in reductions as well as the United States. Furthermore, the administration would need to demonstrate that the benefit of the treaty would outweigh its economic harm.

At The Hague, the Clinton administration tried to meet that stricture by seeking liberal emissions trading between nations and counting carbon sinks as meeting the goal. Such sinks amount to reforestation projects planted here or developed with U.S. aid elsewhere that would suck the biggest greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, from the atmosphere.

Europe would have none of that, though. Seeing that it likely can meet its 8 percent reduction as a continent thanks to Britain's natural gas finds and Germany's modernization of industrial plants in its reintegrated East German half, European bureaucrats demanded that the United States cut its use of fossil fuels, the major human component in the production of greenhouse gases.

But many economists, including some who agree with the thesis that humans can do something about global warming, warn that quick action in that direction would have dire economic consequences.

For example, Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government who is helping write the economic section of the U.N.'s most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, told Tech Central Station before COP-6 that the Kyoto accord did "too little, too soon" anyway.

The short time table for implementing the Kyoto reductions by industrial nations would seriously disrupt global commerce, he said, while the reductions themselves would do little to curb global warming because developing nations were left out.

With the science about what changes humans can actually accomplish in controlling climate change still murky and the potential economic harm from overly abrupt action so great, Europe's lack of flexibility to U.S. proposals on carbon sinks and emissions trading virtually guaranteed talks at The Hague would break down without agreement.

While Lay may have ended up with berries all over his face, it was sloppy politics that landed COP-6 in a tar pit from which it couldn't escape.