It is one thing — but no less a bad thing — for U.S. President George W. Bush to turn his back on pledges to protect the environment that he made during last year’s campaign. It is quite another for him to do so in a manner that upsets U.S. allies and undermines his credibility. His abrupt decision to reject the 1997 Kyoto treaty on global warming does just that.
The president encountered a firestorm of criticism when he announced last week that he considers the global warming agreement to be dead. “The president has been unequivocal. He does not support the Kyoto treaty,” said his official spokesman, Mr. Ari Fleischer. “It is not in the United States’ economic best interest.” The head of the Environment Protection Agency, Ms. Christine Todd Whitman, drove the point home: “We have no interest in implementing that treaty.”
They are half-right. The U.S., along with other countries, has concerns about the particulars of the Kyoto agreement. The strict implementation of its provisions would require wrenching adjustments in the U.S. economy at a time when it, and the world, can least afford them. The treaty does impose more stringent requirements on developed nations, such as the U.S., but they are the biggest greenhouse-gas polluters. The U.S. has only 6 percent of the world’s population, but accounts for roughly 25 percent of world carbon-dioxide emissions. Moreover, the Senate had made it clear — in a 95-0 vote prior to the final 1997 agreement — that it would not support a pact that did not bind both developing and developed countries. As Mr. Fleischer said, the treaty had never come into force, so “there’s nothing to withdraw from.”
But Washington certainly has an interest in the agreement. To say that “it is not in the U.S.’ economic best interest” is to define U.S. national interest too narrowly. There is no longer any doubt about the reality of global warming. There may be questions about the best way to protect the environment, but the scientific community is virtually united in its belief that the phenomenon, once derided, is real. The Kyoto treaty may have been flawed — thus far only Romania has ratified it — but it served as a starting point for ongoing negotiations. The Bush policy deprives the world of even that.
Worse still is the way the new policy was revealed: through the media. Reportedly, the European Union’s environment commissioner learned of the shift when she read a newspaper report; weeks ago, she had requested clarification of U.S. policy in a letter to the new administration but had received no reply. Japanese officials were also caught off-guard. After laboring to bring the Kyoto meeting to a successful conclusion, the U.S. about-face is a bitter blow. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda pledged that the government would continue to press the U.S. to ratify the treaty and bring the Kyoto regime to life.
The U.S. volte-face is no way to make policy. The Kyoto negotiations were proof of the difficulties involved in reaching an agreement on this issue. Mr. Bush has said that he wants to develop a new approach to global warming that will be less burdensome for the U.S. The ill will created by the U.S. decision will make a difficult process even harder. The new policy is unlikely to be ready in time for talks on the treaty that are scheduled to be held in Bonn in July; if that is the case, the Bonn sessions are a waste of time. Why bother talking about global warming when the U.S. has already declared the framework for discussion to be irrelevant?
Mr. Bush’s credibility is also hurt by his seeming hostility to environment-protection measures in general. Since taking office, his administration has rolled back or reversed several decisions taken by his predecessor. International negotiations begin with the assumption that all participants are acting in good faith; the Bush administration’s actions undermine that crucial assumption.
The U.S. is not the only country so burdened. There is the suspicion that European governments are driven by equally powerful domestic political considerations, only from the left, not the right. The growing strength of the Green movement gives European governments very good reasons to take maximalist positions, confident that U.S. obstinacy will spare them the need to compromise. Thus far, that strategy has been validated.
This issue is too important for such games. To frame the global-warming problem — or any environmental question — within the context of the next election cycle is to miss the point entirely. As Mr. Bush has made abundantly clear, our politicians have some way to go before they understand “the real national interest.”
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