Kyoto Protocol's Death Is a Tragedy?

The Protocol Was Merely A Symbolic Gesture


Last November was a bad month for the Greens. While the battle to save their most important political leader raged in Tallahassee, the battle to resurrect their most important international initiative raged in The Hague. There, representatives from 180 nations fought desperately to save the Kyoto Protocol—the 1997 global-warming treaty—from political oblivion. The meeting in The Hague fell apart on Thanksgiving Day, but Americans were too stuffed with turkey and chads to pay events there much notice. Although the Greens bravely speak of yet more summits and more negotiations to come, all the political defibrillators in the world won’t revive this agreement.

The Kyoto Protocol obligated the industrialized nations to reduce their industrial greenhouse-gas emissions to 7 percent below their 1990 level by 2012, a stipulation that translates into a 33 to 40 percent reduction in current emissions. Yet the Protocol never spelled out exactly how the signature nations could go about accomplishing this within the framework of the treaty. Until that’s resolved, no Senate in its right mind would sign on to such an agreement. Thus, the never-ending roundtable of postnegotiation negotiations.

The Clinton-Gore team knew full well that Americans aren’t about to swallow the steep energy taxes levied by European governments or accept their economic equivalent—onerous greenhouse-gas emission restrictions via regulation. So they frantically tried to negotiate less painful mechanisms to comply with the Protocol. International emissions trading, long championed by the Clinton administration, would indeed significantly reduce compliance costs, but European Green hostility to anything that even faintly smells of capitalism left that option a nonstarter.

The Clinton-Gore team therefore went to The Hague with another idea; sequestration. Why not allow nations to offset their emissions by increasing the storage capacity of natural carbon sinks? After all, the net effect of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 15 percent is the same as increasing the terrestrial absorption of greenhouse gases by 15 percent, and it’s a lot cheaper. Moreover, adopting sequestration strategies has the secondary advantage (from the environmentalists’ perspective) of increasing the global expanse of forests and related ecosystems. The Europeans, however, reacted as if the American plan were some sort of Satanic subterfuge, and the talks collapsed in acrimony.

This decade-long political dance surrounding global warming has now made a few things perfectly clear.

First, the Green lobby is primarily interested in reducing domestic fossil-fuel consumption, not in reducing greenhouse-gas buildup per se. They’re not about to let the industrialized nations off the hook by opening the door to compliance strategies that subvert their campaign to remake those communities in their own primitivist image.

Second, symbols count far more than substance. According to British climatologist Tom Wigley, the über-alarmist of the Kyoto camp, the Protocol signed in 1997 would only reduce global temperatures by 0.13 degrees Fahrenheit below where they otherwise would be by the year 2050. To actually stop the warming would require an infinitely more radical restructuring of industrial society.

Why then this holy crusade for a treaty that—if you accept the global warming hypothesis—would do virtually no good whatsoever? Because the treaty is a symbol of our willingness to act, not a credible action plan itself.

Finally, Green politicians are not primarily interested in achieving serious greenhouse-gas emission controls. They are primarily interested in posturing and posing for domestic constituents. As long as the Green lobby refuses to punish political champions who fail to deliver on their agenda, politicians thought to be “fighting the good fight” are just as well off, and maybe better off, than politicians who actually win the good fight.

Since concrete emission restrictions are hard to deliver and are by necessity products of messy compromises that might anger their base, there are good reasons for Green politicians to content themselves with hot rhetoric and symbolic gestures of concern rather than with accomplishing anything. That’s particularly true when there are potentially real costs to these programs that could quite possibly trigger a terrific political backlash against their proponents if they were ever put in place.

Symbolic Gestures

The first two observations aren’t particularly remarkable to dedicated public-policy observers, but the last one might well startle some. Yet political scientist David Mayhew of Yale University has identified this phenomenon time and time again. In his magisterial treatise titled Congress: The Electoral Connection (Yale University Press, 1974), Mayhew points out, for instance, that for all the Sturm und Drang surrounding the Vietnam War, the peace movement in Congress was remarkably lethargic. Still, antiwar voters were no less mobilized and valuable because of it. Ronald Reagan’s frequent rhetorical flourishes on behalf of the right-to-life movement and occasional symbolic gestures of support were enough to lock it into his political coalition. That support would have been no more valuable had he actually rolled back abortion rights. In fact, the inevitable backlash would have reduced the value of that support.

In the final analysis, there’s only one way to reduce industrial greenhouse-gas emissions: raise the price of fossil fuel consumption. And, if we’re serious about reducing greenhouse gas buildup in the atmosphere, we’d have to increase prices to the point where few if any of us would ever again voluntarily buy gasoline or coal-fired electricity.

Now ask yourself: when was the last time that swing voters in this country (the only voters that really matter to politicians) voluntarily embraced truly significant and identifiable economic burdens in order to alleviate problems that might be confronted five or ten decades hence? Answer: never. The looming catastrophe surrounding Social Security, for instance, tells us all we need to know about the willingness of the American public to sacrifice in any significant manner for future generations.

The Green lobby knows this, which is why they push not energy taxes but energy efficiency, renewable-energy subsidies, and a whole host of programs that make no sense from a global-warming perspective, but nonetheless advance long-standing movement agendas. Mandatory energy conservation and efficiency improvements, for instance, serve primarily to reduce the marginal cost of energy-related services. But as any economist can tell you, reducing the marginal cost of something when demand is elastic will increase consumption. This is true in spades in the energy market. Increase the fuel efficiency of cars and watch vehicle miles traveled shoot through the skies. Reduce the cost of running air conditioners in the summer and watch people turn the thermostat down further during hot July afternoons.

The Kyoto Protocol may be dead, but it was only a symbol. New symbols will inevitably be found. Yet the policy it symbolizes—a serious global effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions—never had a chance in the first place. Global warming will still be marshaled to justify this or that Green program or this or that rent-seeking operation in Washington, but the Green campaign for a “radical transformation of society” (Al Gore’s words) died its thousandth death in The Hague this November.

Jerry Taylor
Director, Natural Resource Studies
Cato Institute


March 2001

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