With the Kyoto Treaty Dead, Environmentalists Take Incremental Approach, By John K. Carlisle

For the moment, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that the Kyoto global warming treaty will not turn their standard of living upside down – but only for a moment.

Negotiated by the Clinton Administration in December 1997, Kyoto would have required the United States and other industrialized nations to make economically-drastic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions to combat the alleged threat of man-made global warming.

But the U.S. and more than 170 nations, convening at a United Nations meeting in The Hague, Netherlands between November 13-25, were unable to agree on terms implementing the treaty. The main disagreement centered on a bitter dispute between the U.S. and the European Union on whether the U.S. could count its forests toward meeting its greenhouse gas reduction targets. U.S. negotiators desperately pressed for more economically-friendly ways to meet Kyoto’s onerous goals. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, Kyoto would cost the U.S. economy $400 billion per year, raise electric utility bills by 80 to 85% and impose a permanent “Kyoto gasoline tax” of 45 to 55 cents per gallon.1

Because forests absorb significant amounts of carbon dioxide, American negotiators wanted to count its forests and other “carbon sinks” toward its emissions reductions targets. By counting the carbon dioxide absorbed by forests, the U.S. would not have had to rely as much on onerous – and politically unacceptable – carbon taxes and regulations to meet Kyoto’s emissions reductions targets. However, European nations objected that the U.S. was trying to dodge its treaty obligations and rejected a last minute compromise that would have allowed the U.S. to include forests.2

Commenting on the European refusal to compromise on the “carbon sinks,” Frank Loy, the chief U.S. negotiator at The Hague said, “I think it is fair to say that was a pretty important opportunity that was not cashed in on.”3

The question now is, what next? Even before The Hague debacle, environmentalists knew that the global warming battle was shifting from the international arena to the domestic arena. At a Washington, D.C. conference in April, representatives of major environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense, agreed that while Kyoto is politically unrealistic, incremental policies aimed at regulating carbon dioxide emissions are achievable. That view was echoed by congressional staff members present at The Hague conference. Said one senate staffer, “Regardless of the outcome here, the stage is set in Congress next year to consider addressing this issue in a way that makes economic and environmental sense.”4

Indeed, environmentalists are already gearing up their lobbying campaign. The Aspen Institute recently published a book, U.S. Policy and the Global Environment: Memos to the President, that will be sent to the new Congress and President. The thrust of the book’s essays is that while it is impossible to ratify Kyoto, the U.S. can still take unilateral steps that would eventually bind the U.S. to the treaty in five to ten years. One contributor, John Holdren, says that instead of pressing for carbon taxes of $100 or $200 per ton as required by Kyoto, Congress could implement a less ambitious plan that would get “our toes wet with a tax of $20 per ton.” What that translates into is soaking the American people with a $30 billion tax increase.5

It never occurs to environmentalists that these costly carbon taxes purport to address a problem that may not exist. Many scientists, including some of those who subscribe to the global warming theory, do not believe that rising carbon dioxide levels are contributing to global warming. Dr. James Hansen, the godfather of the global warming theorists, says that “it is the non-CO2 [Greenhouse Gases] that have caused most observed warming.”6 Other scientists do not even believe humans are responsible for global warming. Several European and American scientists say that data from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Soho satellite show that the Sun, not human burning of fossil fuels, is the main cause of the global warming that occurred between 1850 and the mid-20th century. Paul Brekke, Soho’s deputy project scientist, says that whatever other merits there may be in taxing fuel, “our evidence suggests it will not be much help in keeping the Earth cool.”7

But environmentalists ignore these facts in their single-minded rush to foist costly taxes on the American people. Kyoto may be dormant for now but its spirit is still very much alive.


John K. Carlisle is director of The National Center for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Policy Task Force. 


1 “Impacts of the Kyoto Protocol on the United States,” Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, D.C., October 1998.
2 Andrew Revkin, “U.N. Conference Fails to Reach Accord on Global Warming,” The New York Times, November 26, 2000.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 U.S. Policy and the Global Environment: Memos to the President, Aspen Institute, Aspen, Colorado, 2000.
6 David Wojick, “Hansen Plan Jolts Climate Community,” Electricity Daily, September 2000.
7 Jonathan Leake, “Stronger Sun is Blamed for Global Warming,” Times of London, September 24, 2000.

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