Issue 29, October 2004

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If You Don’t Pay, You Don’t Get to Play:
The US and the Kyoto Process

There’s a new club in town: the “Kyoto Club.” It was formed in mid-December 2004 in Argentina at a conference of governments meeting to discuss ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) to the atmosphere. The club’s “membership” is comprised of countries whose governments have signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, a legal international accord to cope with the adverse causes and consequences of GHGs to the atmosphere. That’s the price you have to pay to be a “member.” Policymakers have been working on this Protocol since 1997. To get going, the club needed a quorum, a minimum number of members. It got that when Russia’s President Putin decided to sign on. The Protocol goes into force 90 days after ratification by Russia (16 February 2005).

Two major greenhouse gas emitters, the USA and Australia, have not signed on to the Kyoto Protocol. In other words, the US government has chosen not to join this particular club that now boasts a membership of 130 countries. Australia has followed the US lead. It is necessary to keep in mind that not all of those governments that ratified the Protocol did so because they believe the scientific reports that blame human activities for recent warming trends. Some have likely signed on to be a part of the Kyoto process with the purpose of acting as a “fifth column” (that is, to act as potential obstructionists if deliberations threaten their national interests) to slow down progress toward mandatory regulations that call for large cuts in a nation’s CO2 emissions.

It seems to me that we are entering a new stage in the global warming problem. I believe that the formation of the Kyoto Club has created a “glass wall,” a barrier of sorts, between members of the club who profess that their countries will abide by the rules and regulations, mission, and goals of the Protocol and those who have chosen to pay no attention to it. The difference between these two groups: while Kyoto Club members may not reach their stated goals to reduce CO2 emissions, they have pledged to at least try. To the public at large, these countries are trying to deal with a potentially dangerous environmental problem of global proportions.

The US government (along with Australia’s) has been against placing any mandatory limits to their GHG emissions. Opposition to limits has been its guiding theme in how the US has treated the Kyoto Protocol process, as well as to the scientific findings that are driving (actually, accelerating) the Kyoto process. Those findings come not only from modeling efforts but from observations of changes everywhere as well, such as glaciers melting just about everywhere on the globe. However, there are direct and indirect, obvious and not-so-obvious, consequences for not joining the Kyoto Club. The club’s members have taken over the global leadership position on climate and global change issues. How effective will US participation be in future deliberations on global warming? Will the US be able to influence the process as a powerless onlooker – an outsider?

Many scientific studies based on a variety of research methods suggest there will be an increase in frequency, as well as intensity, of extreme events (droughts, floods, tropical storms, disease outbreaks) as the atmosphere warms. I am concerned that with the creation of the Kyoto Club, there will be a subtle, creeping but steady, shift of blame for the occurrence, as well as the damage, of weather and climate-related disasters. Instead of blaming industrialized nations in general for the adverse impacts of GHG emissions, people will increasingly blame the US for specific environmental changes and disasters as they occur around the globe.

Those who care about the fate of the planet and the well-being of present and future generations should worry about the mounting criticism of the US as being the major obstacle to resolving the global warming problem. Tuvalu and other Pacific Island nations, among others, are planning to sue the industrialized countries for global warming-related sea level rise that will eventually submerge their territory. It is conceivable that, eventually, several of those damage claims may morph into legal cases with the USA as the defendant.

Nevertheless, it is increasingly clear that many Americans, companies, and city governments want to take effective concrete steps toward arresting the country’s GHG emissions. Steps to limit GHG emissions by, say, the State of California can have a greater impact than actions taken by many national governments with smaller economies. In a way, it is like going to a casino to gamble: in order to play you have to pay. The US has chosen at this point in time not to relinquish any control over its greenhouse gas emissions to the Kyoto Club. As a result, it will have considerably less influence on the decisions made by the club, decisions that may become binding for many countries around the globe.

--Michael H. Glantz


If you have any comments or feedback about If You Don’t Pay, You Don’t Get to Play:
The US and the Kyoto Process
please contact Michael Glantz at his email address, or write to him at ESIG/NCAR, PO Box 3000, Boulder, CO 80307 USA.