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Conflicting noises on Kyoto

Posted by Helen Thursday, December 16, 2004

While even the supporters of Kyoto are acknowledging that it is of no use whatsoever in dealing with global warming (if, indeed, there is any need or possibility of dealing with it rather than adjusting or making the best of it as people have done in the past), there is some difficulty in agreeing on its political significance.

The problem is that its political aim – international control of the United States – has failed. Not only President Bush is against the whole protocol (something that we are being told over and over again) but Congress voted against it (something that is not mentioned by most commentators).

The International Herald Tribune that has recently set itself up as the cheer-leader for the “sophisticated” pro-European American opinion – though it has problems distinguishing European from EU – published an article yesterday by Nigel Purvis, environment scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, who served as a senior climate change negotiator under Clinton and Bush. Presumably, he must be feeling rather frustrated but one cannot help wondering who he was negotiating with about climate change. Does God take part in endless committee meetings and working dinners? Unlikely.

Mr Purvis’s thesis is that the resurrection of the Kyoto treaty with Russia signing it (though, for some reason, he did not explain that she did so with very bad grace, in response to blatant blackmail and clearly not intending to keep to it) has left the United States behind in international negotiations.

“Kyoto illustrates the fact that the international community questions more than ever America’s moral authority and its commitment to universal values, including environmental stewardship. Anti-Americanism is already on the rise in “old Europe” because of Bush’s policies in Iraq. US resistance to action on global warming only solidifies America’s image abroad as a nation of parochial, selfish and wasteful SUV drivers. Although America remains the brightest beacon of freedom, it must treat seriously the perception abroad that its light has dimmed.”
The trouble with those statements is that they are half true and completely unhelpful about the future. First of all, a large part of the international community has not signed up to Kyoto because of its peculiar assumption that the only polluters who matter are the developed countries, among whom is Russia but not China. (Not that China would ever sign up, anyway.)

As Mr Purvis points out at the very beginning of his article, Kyoto will achieve very little and signing up to it is purely political showmanship. It is only as long as the US refuses to go along with this sort of meaningless international control of its democratic institutions and drive for freedom that it can remain a beacon, as it does to many people in the world.

The attitude of “old Europe”, surely a small and unimportant part of the world, is far too entrenched to make a difference. Besides, “old Europe” may have signed up to Kyoto, it is not exactly achieving any of the emission goals.

The real problem is that by the time Mr Purvis’s article appeared, there were other, somewhat contrary noises abroad. The Italian Environment Minister, Altero Matteoli, has announced that once Kyoto runs out in 2012, the whole subject will have to be reviewed. The way forward, he thought was not through multilateral agreements, but bilateral ones and none of them would have any meaning unless the US, China and India were involved. Kyoto-2 should involve populous developing countries, who are serious polluters. The chances of either China or India agreeing to this are slim.

According to the AFP report, Italy is not alone. Similar thinking is emerging in Britain and France. In other words, pace Mr Purvis, the Brookings Institution and the International Herald Tribune, the drivers of internationalist thinking, are beginning to reconsider matters. Maybe some of the American robustness is rubbing off on them.

Incidentally, I should have thought there is an excellent way for the United States to ensure that Kyoto does not work at all (should they wish to try as they may not want to bother). Make sure that Russia does not enter the WTO. President Putin has always made it clear that if that does not happen, the deal is off in practice, if not in theory.

Meanwhile, there is news of the Inuit people, who number 155,000 around the world, deciding to sue the United States for causing global warming and thus destroying their traditional way of life. They may find it rather difficult to prove most of that, but you cannot fault their political logic. Always sue the Americans: they may well pay up. What is the point of taking the Chinese or the Russians to court? They will not pay. They will not even turn up to hear the accusations.