The Kyoto No-Show Can Still Go Green

The Kyoto Protocol to combat global climate change goes into effect today, February 16. This treaty, signed on December 11, 1997, is an international effort to protect the earth's climate and slow down global warming. Today, 141 countries have ratified the agreement, and 34 economically advanced countries have accepted the Protocol's targets on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The single heaviest emitter of carbon dioxide, the United States, is not among those countries. James Gustave Speth, the dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, writes that there are many ways Americans can still contribute to this vital global agreement. He outlines a ten point agenda, suggesting what US businesses, state and federal officials, and ordinary citizens can do to support the mission undertaken by Kyoto signatories. – YaleGlobal

The Kyoto No-Show Can Still Go Green

Even without signing the Kyoto Protocol, the United States can still contribute greatly to global greenhouse gas reductions
James Gustave Speth
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
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NEW HAVEN: "Climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today – more serious even than the threat of terrorism." That is how Sir David King, the United Kingdom's chief scientist, stated the problem. Yet, the dual threats of terrorism and climate disruption have received incomparably different treatment in US policies. Washington has erected a huge apparatus to combat terrorism, but has thus far done little to slow the buildup of climate-changing atmospheric gases. Today, as the Kyoto Protocol goes into effect, the US absence is both conspicuous – and tragic.

Since 9/11, advocates of preventive action on climate change have had to struggle harder than usual for public and political attention. Neglect of other issues has been part of the collateral damage of the war on terror. Evidence is rapidly mounting of the devastating consequences of the unchecked releases of climate-altering gases, but the United States has again elected national leaders who have shown little recognition of any existing threat.

Will the Bush Administration's positions change for the better – or at all? In addition to shunning the Kyoto Protocol, it has opposed the McCain-Lieberman climate bill and parts of the Clean Air Act. The United States has failed to strengthen vehicle mileage standards, while resisting international efforts to frame renewable energy goals.

Due to past US negligence, irreparable damage will unfold in the decades ahead. The priority now should be to prevent the situation from deteriorating further. Therefore, concerned parties must develop a strategy that does not depend on Washington's cooperation, but makes the administration's opposition increasingly difficult to maintain.

Fortunately, the outlines of such a strategy are visible, in part because of current efforts to move the United States in the right directions. What follows is a ten-point plan of action that builds on the many encouraging initiatives already under way.

1. Engage both state and locality in action. With the path forward blocked in Washington, states and localities nationwide have moved to fill the breach. Twenty-eight states have developed or are developing action plans to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These include GHG reductions in power plants in Massachusetts and Oregon, renewable energy plan in New York, overall emissions reduction legislation in Connecticut and New Jersey, as well as progressive vehicle regulations in California.

The goal for the immediate future should be to strengthen and deepen state and local commitments and actions. Every state should be pushed to adopt an overall GHG reduction plan, a renewable energy portfolio standard, the California plan for vehicles, and a broad-based energy efficiency program.

2. Use carrots and sticks with business. Despite federal inaction, many corporations are taking significant, voluntary initiatives to reduce their GHG emissions. The anticipation for more stringent carbon regulation, shareholder and consumer pressure, the threat of eventual liability for damages, as well as public perception issues can all make great contributions. The strategy regarding private corporations should involve efforts to recognize and reward positive business performance.

3. Push greening of the financial sector. The financial and insurance sectors are waking up to climate risks. Institutional investors, large lenders, and insurers are becoming increasingly sensitized to financial risks (and opportunities) presented by climate change. These developments should be encouraged. The Securities and Exchange Commission should require companies to disclose fully the financial risks of global warming. Investment managers should be pressed to develop climate-risk competence and to support climate-risk disclosure and action.

4. Urge adoption of a sensible national energy strategy. National energy legislation will be on the Congressional agenda in the coming session. Congress should scrap last term's stalled energy bill and write a new bill based on the several recent bipartisan efforts to build consensus on national energy policy to move the United States toward a low-carbon economy.

5. Pass the McCain-Lieberman bill. The McCain-Lieberman bill, modest by international standards, seeks only to cut US greenhouse gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2010. It is the best hope of getting the United States on the path to emissions reduction. The bill garnered 43 Senate votes in 2003, but requires broader public support to guarantee its passage.

6. Extend hands across the seas. The Kyoto Protocol signatories, now including Russia, represent an international coalition that can press the United States to start a credible GHG emissions reduction program and join the climate treaty process. The European Union could also invite US states to participate in its cap-and-trade GHG market. If it is too late for the United States to comply strictly with the Kyoto Protocol, it is certainly not too late to begin rapidly down that path – and catch up during the more ambitious post-2012 phase of GHG reductions.

7. Promote climate-friendly cooperation with developing countries. With China's emissions now already half those of the United States and Asian emissions almost equal to US levels, future agreements under the climate treaty should provide for developing country commitments on climate and GHGs. Such agreements need not seek (yet) actual reduction in GHG emissions from the developing world as a whole. They should, however, vigorously promote measures to achieve rapid decreases in developing-country GHG releases per unit of GDP. International efforts on multiple fronts are needed to meet these goals.

8. Encourage climate-friendly consumers and institutions. Local groups such as educational institutions, religious organizations, and medical centers can make a big difference by establishing specific targets in reducing GHG emissions. Local initiatives can then expand regionally and nationally to support broader climate-friendly measures.

9. Impose limits on coal. Plans are being laid to construct 118 coal-fired power plants in 36 US states, and American coal use is projected to increase more than 40 percent over the next 20 years. Before launching these new operations, a combination of national, state, and local efforts will be necessary to ensure that environmental risks are taken into account. Environmental and public health groups can collaborate in such a strategy. In Congress, the prospect of all these coal plants should spur the so-called "four-pollutants" bill, which would regulate not only sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury but also carbon dioxide.

10. Build a movement of concerned citizens. More than anything else, the United States needs a new citizens movement – one that brings together all concerned parties to take steps as individual citizens and communities to realize sustainability in everyday life. For example, scientists should no longer content themselves with publishing and lecturing. Only the scientific community has the credibility to take the climate issue to the public and to the politicians, but it has not been as outspoken as it should be. A media-based public education campaign on climate could learn from earlier efforts on drugs, smoking, AIDS and drunk driving. Initiative should be built among those who voted for President Bush to communicate to the president that they did not vote for his energy or climate policies. And, the US foreign policy community – which has given the climate threat very little attention – needs to move this issue front and center.

A concerted and spirited effort by American citizens and public officials is necessary not only to correct the US absence from the Kyoto camp, but also to avert a danger that is worse than the threat of terrorism.

J. Gus Speth is the Dean of Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He served as the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme from 1993 to 1999, and is the author of Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment (Yale, 2004).

© 2005 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization