Beware the Climate Lilliputians

Treaty ties that bind


In Gulliver's Travels, the diminutive Lilliputians tie down the "giant" Gulliver with hundreds of tiny cords. The other nations of the world are hoping to try the same trick on the "giant" United States, binding it with strings of small international agreements that will ultimately restrict its emissions of greenhouse gases.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Montreal ended this past weekend with two such accords. In the first deal, the parties to the Kyoto Protocol reached an agreement to launch negotiations about imposing further restrictions on their emissions of greenhouse gases after that treaty expires in 2012. Since the United States is not a party to the Kyoto Protocol it had no say in this agreement.

Currently, the industrialized nations who are parties to Kyoto Protocol have agreed to reduce their emissions by an average of 5 percent below the levels they emitted in 1990. Significantly, developing nations like China, India, and Brazil that signed the Kyoto Protocol do not have to cut their emissions. In the next round of climate talks, it's very unlikely that they will agree to any binding limits on their emissions unless the United States agrees to go along too. This means the European Union, Japan, and Canada will be negotiating to impose stricter limits on their emissions, which will result in higher energy prices than those enjoyed by their developing country competitors like China and India—as well as by the Kyoto-refusenik United States. Obviously, the industrialized countries that are Kyoto signatories are anxious to find some way to impose the same economic pain on countries that do not have limits on their emissions.

That brings us to the second track of last week's climate negotiations. The Montreal conference featured a parallel set of negotiations among the 189 signatories to the broader climate treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). At the last minute the United States reluctantly agreed to engage in a global dialogue in "the form of an open and non-binding exchange of views" that "will not open any negotiations leading to new commitments." This agreement would seem to amount to little more than a promise by the United States to show up at future United Nations climate meetings, but it was nevertheless hailed as a "triumph." The environmental activist group Greenpeace called the agreements "historic," and British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared them "a vital next step in tackling climate change."

All decisions under the Framework Convention must be reached by consensus, so the Bush Administration could have stopped the second set of negotiations dead in Montreal simply by walking away. The activists and Kyoto signatories are convinced that as climate negotiations grind on that they will have a chance to tie more strings to the recalcitrant giant that is the United States. They are also confident that when the Bush Administration ends in January 2009, the United Nations' climate negotiations will have built up a momentum that the new American administration will find difficult to resist. I once wrote that the Kyoto Protocol was dead, but this decision by the Bush Administration has resurrected it. Unless the United States drops out of the climate negotiations altogether, it's a pretty good bet that the climate Lilliputians will eventually succeed in binding the country they consider the global warming giant.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Moral and Scientific Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.