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Kyoto Fallout

February 16, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Environmental leaders gathered today in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, to mark enactment of the global warming pact that bears the city’s name.

The agreement, signed on to by 140 nations, but not the United States, imposes limits on emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.

The U.S. is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Australia also declined to ratify the protocol.

The goal of the pact, scientists say, is to reduce those greenhouse gas emissions to 5.2 percent less than they were in 1990, by 2012.

The restrictions designated by the treaty apply to only 35 of the industrialized countries who signed on, so developing nations like China and India, who are some of the larger polluters, are not covered by the new rules.

GWEN IFILL: So, if a major global treaty takes effect and the United States is not part of the mix, what does that mean?

For that, we turn to Samuel Thernstrom, a scholar on environmental issues at the American Enterprise Institute. He formerly served in President Bush’s White House Council on environmental quality.

And Jessica Tuchman Mathews is the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She previously was a vice president at the World Resources Institute and served in the Carter and the Clinton administrations.

GWEN IFILL: Jessica Matthews, 140 nations have signed on. The United States is not one of them. What does that mean?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATTHEWS: It means first of all that until we do act, global warming can’t be adequately or effectively slowed because we account for nearly a quarter of the world’s emissions.

All global issues require U.S. participation to address effectively but this one more than any other because of our energy use.

And it matters in a totally different dimension in a big way which is that if we want other countries to sign on to our agenda and to back us up in the war on terror and the other issues that we are pushing in that dimension, we have to participate in what matters most to them.

And this is an issue that matters very, very greatly to the rest of the world, particularly to Europe.

GWEN IFILL: Sam Thernstrom, does it matter?

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: Certainly it matters. But I do actually disagree with Jessica that there’s a linkage between, say, the war on terrorism and the Kyoto Protocol.

I think other countries will act in what they believe is their best interest and the world’s best interest on issues of terrorism and national security regardless of their disagreements with us on issues of climate change.

GWEN IFILL: But the United States has said not signing on to this treaty that it was going to cost too much. Economically it would be too much of a hit. Is that true?

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: Certainly, I think that is very much true. The Kyoto protocol would have imposed unique obligations on the United States, while most countries would have had to make fairly modest reductions to meet the terms of the protocol.

Only the United States has had a very vigorous growing economy since the baseline year of 1990, which is what the protocol establishes as a way of measuring our targets.

Because the American economy has grown so much to meet the Kyoto Protocol goals, America would have had to cut its emissions by 30 percent.

That would be a drastic reduction in energy use in this country and would have a catastrophic effect on the American economy.

GWEN IFILL: Jessica Matthews, if that’s true if there was going to be a 30 percent cut for the United States, in the short term or the long term where is the penalty in this?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATTHEWS: Well, there’s a paradox with the long-term issue. In the short term, when you’re dealing with something that’s going to have its effect over decades and decades, nothing that happens over a very short term makes the difference.

On the other hand, you can never get long-term success until you act in the short term, so there is that paradox. For example, if we had acted, begun to act at the time Kyoto was signed, then we wouldn’t have anything remotely like a 30 percent cut.

We would have had the 12 percent that we originally committed to. My guess is that the economic effect is going to turn out to be the opposite.

That is to say, we will lose the first mover advantage because our corporations, our industries will not be adapting to the new energy-efficient world that they are in Europe as they try to meet these standards.

You know, you think back to 1973, to the first oil embargo. The United States auto makers lost a third of their market to the Japanese efficient automobiles.

There is a very important first-mover advantage as you look towards the future.

GWEN IFILL: But in a case like this, in an agreement like this, in China and India these big growing economies are not engaged, are not covered by what the limitations here. What difference does it make?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATTHEWS: Well, the difference it makes is that, you know, the reason the treaty was written that way was because the developed countries had accounted for virtually all of the greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere.

It’s the future where China and India are key. The problem you can’t… and therefore, the developed countries, I believe, had to act first in order to have the legitimacy to go to the developing countries and say, “even at your very low level of per capita income you have to begin now to change.”

The U.S. can’t be part of that because it’s now sitting outside the tent.

GWEN IFILL: And if the U.S. — let me ask Mr. Thernstrom about that – is not part of that, countries like Australia, which is also is not part of the tent, says “why bother to sign on?” The U.S. isn’t part of it. It seems like we’re in a, kind of a circular argument here.

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: Well, it is a kind of circular argument, but I do think it is worth reminding people actually that we are part of a larger tent the 1992 framework convention on climate change.

GWEN IFILL: What’s that mean?

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: That was adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. And under that convention, the United States has agreed that we should avoid dangerous interference with the climate.

The United States believes, however, that there are many questions about still on the table about what would be dangerous interference with the global climate and what is the best way to avoid that.

So we’ve decided the Kyoto Protocol is not the appropriate approach to pursue reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but the United States Government at the same time spends almost $6 billion a year on federal climate change programs.

We’re doing a lot to deal with climate change. And so the question is in the long run which approach will be more constructive?

A few years from now we’ll have a chance to see whether the Kyoto Protocol has in fact been effective. And then we can compare the two approaches.

GWEN IFILL: You wanted to respond to that.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATTHEWS: Sure. I mean, we’re doing very important research. We’re not doing anything to change the way we use energy, which is the core of this.

We have passed all kinds of voluntary programs. They don’t make a bit of difference, as Sam just indicated. Our energy emissions are climbing rapidly.

So we can do research until the cows come home but that won’t affect global warming that’s happening in the atmosphere. We don’t have to be a member of the Kyoto Treaty in order to make a difference. We can adopt our own path.

And the Kyoto Treaty is flawed. The problem was that when the U.S. pulled out four years ago, it didn’t put anything in its place.

If the president had said, “we think this is a flawed treaty but we agree that we have to address climate change and here’s what we’re going to do, that would have been one thing.” Instead, we said “we don’t think this would be good for us. Not the world but for us.”

And the result is– and I think that while there is no, you can’t say there’s a direct tit for tat linkage, there is an overall long-term issue with the legitimacy of our leadership if we don’t take into account other people’s agendas. This is a key agenda.

GWEN IFILL: I want to pick up on that with Sam Thernstrom because is there a risk that the United States by not taking part in global treaties like this or like land mines or other kinds of global treaties that we’re sending a signal, terrorism aside, to the rest of the country that the U.S. doesn’t really care about global cooperation?

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: Well, certainly I think that every time America disagrees with the world, that has some effect on global opinion of America and may affect the general international goodwill on some issues.

But as I said earlier, I think it’s very unlikely that countries will choose to not work in cooperation with the United States on issues of great interest to them.

GWEN IFILL: Because the U.S. is too powerful to ignore?

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: Because the U.S. is too powerful, and because the issues that America’s agenda for the world is in many ways in the world’s self-interest.

I think other countries agree that we should all work together to combat al-Qaida. Disagreements over climate change aren’t going to affect important things like that.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATTHEWS: Well, I think we’ve– we disagree on the degree to which credibility of leadership rests on some sense of a shared sense of obligations and of what matters to us also matters to you.

With climate, we are the 800-pound gorilla. Our per capita emissions, greenhouse gases are 2.5 times Europe’s. And the world cannot, no matter how hard it tries — they can’t deal with this without us.

But there’s other ways I think that are very important to recognize. This leaves American industries in a quandary because increasingly they recognize that some day we’re going to have to deal with this issue.

But they don’t know whether to act because there’s no framework, mandatory framework, for them to act in. So their competitors in Europe are getting ahead in developing new technologies.

And the other very important issue is that if you agree that at some point we’re going to have to act, the later you delay it, the higher the costs because the steeper the decline will have to be and therefore the greater the disruption and the higher the cost.

So that’s the paradox that you can delay but at some point we’re going to have to act and the costs will be higher.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about that paradox, Sam Thernstrom. You suggested a few minutes ago that already the United States is attempting to address that.

It’s doing other things, just not this treaty to do something about. Like what?

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: Well, Jessica is right in saying that the president didn’t put forward a single policy that is easily summarized in a single phrase like the Kyoto Protocol.

So it’s easy to say, well, America is not doing anything.

Just as a few examples: America has an international agreement with more than a dozen other countries to reduce methane emissions, which are one of the most powerful greenhouse gases.

America is working with other countries to develop the infrastructure and the technology to build hydrogen fuel-celled vehicles, which are zero emission breakthrough technology.

Won’t be on the road, you know, this year or next year, but 20 years from now we might all be driving these clean cars which would totally change America’s emissions profile.

America is building the first zero emissions coal-fired power plant, which takes the carbon dioxide emissions out of the waste stream from the power plant and sequesters them, captures them.

So these types of demonstration projects of breakthrough technologies are the sort of thing that years down the road, in fact, we might be able to make truly drastic reductions in our emissions at a much lower cost than we could today.

GWEN IFILL: Finally, do we know based on the countries who have signed on to this treaty, U.S. aside, whether the goals that these countries have set for themselves, you say the Kyoto Protocol is flawed — can they be achieved in the time they set for themselves?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATTHEWS: I think overall they probably can. Some countries like Germany have set a much higher target than their Kyoto target.

I think the United Kingdom, Great Britain is moving very, very aggressively and others as well. Some will fall short. But on balance, I think they probably will.

GWEN IFILL: And briefly?

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: Actually I’m much more skeptical as to whether or not other countries will meet the Kyoto targets. And if they do meet them, I think they will largely meet them simply by buying credits from the Russians.

So, we’ll see in a few years. I welcome the protocol coming into effect. I think it’s time to see if it actually can do its job. A few years from now we can have a new debate about how to go forward.

GWEN IFILL: Sam Thernstrom and Jessica Matthews, thank you both very much.

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: Thank you.