A wind chill of minus-17 degrees greeted senior environmental officials from the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan and the South Pacific in Ottawa last Wednesday as they went behind closed doors for two days of talks to try to re-ignite burned-out negotiations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Over the next week, more talks are expected in Oslo.
The aim appears to be an agreement in time for French President Jacques Chirac's meeting with President Clinton when they meet in Washington on Dec. 18.
But it would be far better for Clinton's legacy—and the world economy—if no deal is reached. And, even if one is struck, the reception of Congress will be far chillier than the winds of Ottawa.
Clinton is acting like a frantic lame duck on the environmental front. In these last days, he's already fenced off vast tracks of resources in the Pacific and the Northwest from development. His regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, are issuing costly new orders to clean up PCBs from the Hudson River and sulfur from diesel fuel—both matters that a new administration with better research and less ideological fervor would certainly delay.
But it is the president's last-minute dash to sign a climate-change treaty that is most disturbing.
It was barely two weeks ago that talks broke down at the U.N.- sponsored COP 6 climate change negotiations in The Hague, capital of the Netherlands. The issue was the means by which industrial nations would be allowed to cut their greenhouse emissions—particularly carbon dioxide—to meet set at a similar conference in Kyoto in 1997. Under the protocol, negotiated by Vice President Al Gore, the United States would have had to cut its emissions by 7 percent from 1990 levels by 2012.
I attended the conclave of 180 nations at The Hague, and it was obvious that Europeans were more interested in trying to gain an economic advantage over the United States and in scoring point for Uncle-Sam bashing with their Green constituents than in meeting, in sensible ways, the still uncertain threat of global warming.
They balked at reducing carbon dioxide by using such methods as reforestation ("carbon sinks") and trading of emission credits between nations. Those methods would have made meeting the targets more affordable for countries such as the U.S., Australia, Canada and Japan – but would have little effect on Europe, which had already rigged the rules in its favor. More important, carbon pulled out of the air through the natural action of trees has the same effect, scientifically, as carbon emissions never entering the air in the first place.
The new talks, conducted furtively behind closed doors rather than in the open as they were in the Netherlands, apparently start where the old talks fell apart. Five senators, all Republicans, even sent a letter this week to Clinton urging negotiators to keep in mind that the Senate "is clearly on record, by a vote of 95-0, regarding what kind of climate change treaty would be acceptable. It cannot cause serious harm to the U.S. economy and it must include binding commitments from all nations to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
An agreement merely among the nations represented in Ottawa obviously doesn't involve all nations, and not even major polluters such as India and China. Those "developing countries" would be exempted from the Kyoto Protocol. The apparent U.S. position at The Hague was weak enough, and any further would damage the U.S. economy, perhaps even send it into recession.
The senators noted in their letter to Clinton that his own Undersecretary of State, Frank Loy, had said at the collapse of talks in the Netherlands: "Nations can only negotiate abroad what they believe they can ratify at home. The United States is not in the business of signing-up to agreements it knows it cannot fulfill. We don't make promises we can't keep."
Why should the administration now decide that its last questionable proposal should become the starting point for further compromise on a climate treaty that the Senate won't accept? Perhaps to put pressure on George W. Bush if he becomes president.
Under this scenario, a piece of paper, from Ottawa or Oslo, committing the U.S. to reductions in greenhouse gases – the way the Europeans want them reduced – would face a President Bush in his first day in office, with environmentalists clamoring for him to prove his mettle by agreeing to it.
If that happens, Bush's choice will be clear: Rip it up. Yes, the threat of global climate change is serious and bears close scrutiny. If the U.S. believes that warming warrants action, we can take steps ourselves. We don't need to sign an agreement that Chirac calls a grand step toward "global governance." Do it right. Go it alone.
This piece originally appeared in the Editorial section of the Washington Times on Monday, December 11, 2000.