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A Magazine of Ideas

The Quiet Death of the Kyoto Protocol

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Reading the climate news in recent weeks, one might start to wonder who won the last election.

Reading the climate-change news in recent weeks, one might wonder who won the last election.

The Obama administration has rejected the Kyoto Protocol (ensuring it will expire), adopted some of former President George W. Bush’s key positions in international climate negotiations, and demurred when asked about reports that the president has decided to skip the December climate summit in Copenhagen. United Nations climate negotiator Yvo de Boer has concluded that it is “unrealistic” to expect the conference to produce a new, comprehensive climate treaty—which also describes the once-fond hopes for passage of domestic climate legislation this year—or even in Obama’s first term.

This is not how it was supposed to be.

Among all the things that President Bush did to infuriate environmentalists, none was more inexcusable than his rejection of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, and it was assumed that Obama’s election meant a triumphant American return to the Kyoto fold—symbolically, at least, if not literally. Backed by large majorities in both houses of Congress, Obama was widely expected to quickly pass a Kyoto-style domestic cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases, positioning America to take the moral high ground in Copenhagen, thus luring (or compelling) China and India to accept emissions targets.

Congress’s inaction—and its continued concern about trade competitiveness questions—has forced Obama, in effect, to take the Bush position.

The story, at least on the international side, is complicated by our actual history with Kyoto, which is not as simple as some greens would portray it today. Rejection of Kyoto—in 1997, three years before Bush’s election—was a rare moment of bipartisan consensus on climate policy; the Senate voted unanimously (95-0) against its basic tenets, and the Clinton-Gore administration never submitted it for ratification. (Even a little-known state legislator from Illinois named Barack Obama voted to condemn Kyoto and prohibit the state from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.)

The treaty’s fundamental flaws were well understood: It set very ambitious—and costly—targets for the United States while allowing emissions from the developing world to continue to rise unchecked. (And indeed today, despite Kyoto’s ratification, China has become the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases.) Americans don’t mind contributing to a solution, but Kyoto asked a lot of sacrifice for little reward.

Despite that moment of bipartisan consensus on Kyoto, the election of George W. Bush quickly made opposition to Kyoto indefensible among all right-thinking environmentalists; Kyoto’s genuine structural flaws were excused, if not forgotten, by all but a few. And instead of it being Al Gore’s fault for agreeing a pie-in-the-sky treaty in defiance of a unanimous vote of the Senate, Kyoto’s demise was blamed on Bush for his more forthright refusal in 2001 to seek ratification. This is natural in politics, of course, but the cost was a loss of focus on the need for effective alternatives to Kyoto.

If ever an issue cried out for a sensible, centrist approach, it is climate change.

While Barack Obama did not explicitly campaign on a pledge to ratify Kyoto, his hope-and-change message was clear: Elect me and America will no longer be an outcast on climate policy; I will lead the charge for a new, Kyoto-style agreement in Copenhagen. And President-elect Obama’s first statement on climate change was a bold pledge: “Once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations and help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change.” In retrospect, the commitment seems a bit vague, but his audience has no doubt what he meant. As one British newspaper breathlessly reported:

Prospects for success in the world's struggle to combat global warming have been transformed at a stroke after U.S. President-elect Barack Obama made it clear that America would play its full part in renewing the Kyoto Protocol climate-change treaty. His words, in effect, brought an end to eight years of willful climate obstructionism by the administration of George Bush, who withdrew the U.S. from Kyoto in March 2001, thus doing incalculable damage to the efforts of the international community to construct a unified response to the threat.

Eleven months later, the dream of a successful global climate policy seems as far out of reach as ever, and America continues to have profound disagreements over climate policy with much of the world. In the good old days of the bad old Bush administration, it was easy to paper over the profoundly complicated and difficult obstacles to effective national and international climate agreements; “Blame Bush!” was a cry greens could all rally around. Today, the inconvenient truth of the matter is harder to hide, and to a surprising degree, the rallying cry for the rest of the world remains “Blame America!”

Inconvenient Truths

How did we reach this point, less than a year into the Obama administration? There are different dynamics at work: undue deference to Congress on domestic legislation, and insufficient leverage in international negotiations to overcome vastly dissimilar national interests and abilities.

The Kyoto treaty’s fundamental flaws were well understood: it set very ambitious and costly targets for the United States while allowing emissions from the developing world to continue to rise unchecked.

As he has with a number of key issues, President Obama has let Congress largely take the lead in crafting domestic climate legislation—to his regret, one must imagine, seeing the results. The bill that passed the House by the narrowest of margins was a monstrosity by any measure, hailed even by its most fervent supporters as a detestable mess. Progress in the Senate has been far slower, and it is increasingly clear that no bill will pass this year. Hopes for action on climate will have carry over to 2010—a contentious election year, at a time when unemployment may well top 10 percent and polling suggests that public concern about climate change is falling dramatically. The prospects for a bill in 2010 are not good—and Democrats are likely to lose seats in those elections, leaving them poorly positioned to pass legislation in 2011–12 as the next presidential election approaches.

Less than a year into Obama’s first term, it seems plausible that no climate bill will pass before 2013 at the earliest, and that the Kyoto Protocol will expire in 2012 without a comprehensive successor agreement to take its place.

Having promised to lead the Copenhagen negotiations to a successful conclusion, Obama now finds himself in a bind: Unable to get a bill through Congress, he doesn’t want to repeat Gore’s mistake of letting Europeans pressure him into signing a treaty the Senate won’t ratify while sanctioning unrestricted emissions from the developing world. Since treaties require the support of two-thirds of the Senate, ratification will be more difficult than passage of domestic legislation. So the administration’s draft implementing agreement submitted to the UN in May specified that emissions reductions would be subject to “conformity with domestic law.” In other words, whatever is agreed to here doesn’t mean a thing if the Senate doesn’t agree. As Jonathan Pershing, a top State Department negotiator, remarked at the recent climate negotiators’ meeting in Bangkok. “We are not going to be part of an agreement we cannot meet.”

This position protects Obama from the danger of getting ahead of the Senate—while infuriating Europe and developing nations that consider strong American action on climate long overdue. As an anonymous European Commission official remarked in September, climate negotiations are “not going well”:

European Union officials have grown increasingly frustrated at the U.S. stance, saying it has fallen short on both its level of ambition to reduce emissions and on offering aid to developing nations. “So far, we thought the basic problem was the Chinese and the Indians. But now I think the problem appears to lie most clearly with the U.S.”

Clearly, the road to an agreement on climate that satisfies both domestic and international constituents will be long, at best.

During the Bush administration, it was easy to paper over the profoundly complicated and difficult obstacles to effective national and international climate agreements; ‘Blame Bush!’ was a cry greens could all rally around.

The China-India problem remains unsolved as well, and Obama clearly is not blind to the serious political, economic, and environmental problems with any treaty that reaffirms Kyoto’s sanction of unrestricted emissions from developing countries. Climate advocates have long argued that the key to overcoming developing world resistance to emissions limits is American leadership; if we go first, China and India will follow. Skeptics note that what we gain in credibility we may lose in leverage needed to force a deal in Copenhagen. In any case, Congress’s inaction—and its continued concern about trade competitiveness questions—has forced Obama, in effect, to take the Bush position: No new treaty without developing world participation. As NPR recently reported, Kyoto will be allowed to expire after 2012. “The United States never ratified the agreement because it doesn't require any action from the developing world, including China, the world’s largest emitter. The Bush administration considered that a fatal flaw. And so does the Obama White House.”

This is the crux of the argument: The crucial feature of the deal that Gore struck in Kyoto was its exemption of the developing world from emissions reduction obligations. Without that concession, the developing world would never have accepted the treaty—but with it, the treaty was almost worthless (particularly since, as a political matter, that provision precluded American participation). This was the fatal flaw of Kyoto—and, having established that exemption, it will be doubly hard to persuade developing nations to undo it.

Obama apparently hopes to finesse these issues by reaching bilateral agreements with China and India, although critics complain that doing so would potentially undermine the multilateral architecture of the prospective Copenhagen treaty. But recent reports that no bilateral agreement will be announced during Obama’s visit to China in November suggest that a deal by Copenhagen is unlikely. China and India are both under enormous international pressure to accept emissions limits—and even greater domestic pressure to maintain a strong rate of economic growth. Both countries have so far firmly resisted calls for binding emissions caps, although President Hu Jintao has said that China will cut its emissions relative to economic growth—that is, the greenhouse-gas “intensity” of the Chinese economy, not total emissions—by a “notable” margin by 2020.

As a state legislator, Barack Obama voted to condemn Kyoto and prohibit the state from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, to its credit, the administration is taking a surprisingly hard line with developing countries. State Department envoy Todd Stern recently called on developing nations to make significant, binding commitments to emissions reductions, remarking:

We don’t in the U.S. deny that we have real historical responsibility but the IEA [International Energy Agency] in Paris will tell you that 97 percent of the growth in emissions between now and 2050 will come from the developing world. The U.S. has to act and the EU and Japan but also the developing countries. It’s the only way to solve this problem.

This is strong stuff—and it runs contrary to much conventional liberal wisdom in the United States, Europe, and particularly in the developing world, which holds that the nations most responsible for past emissions should be primarily responsible for mitigation. If climate change is a moral issue (as most liberals insist), then the polluter responsible for past emissions should be on the hook for their consequences today; if we see the issue purely in pragmatic terms, then responsibility must be shared significantly with the major developing economies. The insistence that developing nations make credible commitments to emissions reductions has been a core conservative principle on climate; seeing Obama pick up that torch is encouraging—it is vital to crafting any true, effective global agreement—but it remains to be seen whether any combination of pressure and persuasion will be sufficient to strike a deal on those terms.

What should we make of the surprising Bushification of these aspects of Obama’s climate policy? It is too soon to say. It is easy to see these events as a series of failures, yet they may still prove to be the first steps to success if the president is committed to crafting real alternatives. Certainly the first step to success lies in rejecting the failed approaches of the past—and inadvertently or not, Obama has moved further in that direction than might have been expected a year ago. On the international side, he has taken a surprisingly reformist stance. But building a new architecture for domestic and international climate policy would be an enormous undertaking.

Doing so would require a willingness to challenge the cherished assumptions of many environmental advocates, a risky proposition for a president who has been increasingly forced to rely on his base for support. Yet the potential rewards are also great: if ever an issue cried out for a sensible, centrist approach, it is climate change.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the President Bush’s climate policy was not its substantive flaws (although there were many), but rather that the president was such an inarticulate advocate for it. The president’s greatest power is the bully pulpit, and if he uses it wisely, he can change the way America, and even the world, thinks about a complex issue like climate change. President Bush had that opportunity and squandered it; President Obama is better positioned to tackle the task, but healthcare and other matters have, so far, come first. The question is whether, as the president retrenches following a disappointing first year in office, he will be willing to take a gamble on a new approach to climate.

The odds against that scenario are tall; the smart—or at least, natural—political move for Obama would be to simply blame Republicans for blocking the climate bill, an easy charge to make, and both parties appear willing to take their positions to the voters. Yet a new approach to climate policy will require a willingness to somehow rise above politics to challenge conventional liberal wisdom on key aspects of climate policy. Doing so would not be easy for Obama in this intensely partisan time. But with polls indicating dwindling support for him from independents and Republicans, a creative, centrist approach to climate could be the key to turning that trend around.

There is a credible body of serious, creative work exploring different approaches to both domestic and international climate change issues; if, in the face of gridlock in Congress and the collapse of the Kyoto system, Obama chooses to make this issue a top priority, a fresh start on climate policy could still earn bipartisan support. Alas, what we have heard so far from President Obama is merely a pledge to “redouble” his efforts to strike a deal in Copenhagen—or, at least, to create a “framework for progress”—without acknowledging the genuinely thorny issues that have precluded agreement to date. Admitting failure is the first step to success—yet it violates the first rule of politics. Obama campaigned on a promise to change politics as usual in Washington and around the world. Can he do it on climate? Some commentators argue that the only problem with the legislation being considered by Congress is that it lacks sufficient votes for passage; in fact, its political problems are rooted in its structural flaws, not vice versa. An acknowledgment from President Obama that a new approach is needed would start a fresh conversation on climate that is long overdue.

Samuel Thernstrom is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and codirector of the AEI Geoengineering Project.

FURTHER READING: In “White Makes Right? Steven Chu's Helpful Idea,” Thernstrom discusses a "soft" geoengineering proposal.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.