Last year President Bush seemingly imperiled a movement to keep the planet livable when he rejected the Kyoto Protocol, the culmination of negotiations begun at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The United States—as the world’s largest contributor of greenhouse gases—was a cornerstone member of the 1997 agreement which would have required countries to reduce their emissions 5.2 percent below 1990 levels over the next decade.
But U.S. participation may not be required to implement the plan, and in fact a temporary U.S. absence may make future accords stronger, at least according to Elliot Diringer, who spoke late last month in Bigfork to 50 international dignitaries while standing beneath the flags of South Korea, China, Japan and the United States—four countries that collectively produce about half of the carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.
A former deputy assistant to President Clinton, Diringer is now director of international strategies for the Pew Center of Global Climate Change. Participants in the Bigfork conference included ambassadors from China and Korea, as well as the former Japanese minister of state for the Environment Agency.
Diringer opened the first day of discussions at the fifth annual Mansfield Pacific Retreat in Bigfork with a presentation titled “Setting the Stage: Beyond Kyoto,” in which he speculated on the reasons why Bush rejected the agreement.
First, in an apparent display of special-interest politics, the new administration was rewarding big business friends who felt threatened by the measure and who had contributed to his 2000 presidential victory. After perhaps miscalculating the response, Bush was criticized domestically, and his actions galvanized support for the agreement internationally.
Second, the rejection may have been a necessary readjustment to bring his rhetoric in line with its actions. Although the Clinton administration had declared support for international agreements to reduce emissions, it hadn’t implemented any strategies to help the United States meet those goals, nor had it recruited the help of Congress.
“The U.S. was in no way prepared to do at home what it had promised abroad,” said Diringer.
Despite the current administration’s scant interest in the Kyoto agreement, there is hope in U.S. politics for the next round of international negotiations on the environment. Derringer noted that New Hampshire has since required that its power plants reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, and Texas now requires utilities to promote alternative sources of renewable energy. Plus, the rise in proposed legislation addressing greenhouse gasses and global climate change suggests that Congress may be willing to throw its weight behind the next global accord.
In addition, the Kyoto Protocol and subsequent negotiations—including an agreement signed by 178 other countries last summer in Germany—are moving ahead in some form, with or without American participation. Diringer notes that some 40 multinational corporations such as BP, Dupont and Alcoa have set target reduction levels for greenhouse gases, as the science of global climate change becomes more compelling and as they identify a future competitive advantage if they get ahead of the curve now.
Nonetheless, Diringer identifies some significant challenges that must be addressed at the next global warming summit. Definitive emission levels and a time schedule for their reduction must be established which are both practical and cost-effective. For example, any agreement must establish universal industry-wide goals, and the timeframe must include a gradual adoption of those goals, and not a single penalizing deadline.
Also, the persistent problem of fairness—that is, of pitting industrialized countries against developing countries, and all countries against one other—has yet to be overcome. No deal will be struck until the countries that have turned up the thermostat on the planet are willing to transfer technology and capital to those nations trying to raise their standard of living as well.
“Those bearing the least responsibility for global climate change are facing the greatest burden,” says Diringer. “Nations will not commit unless they perceive it to be fair.”
During the first working session in Bigfork, panelists staked out their respective national and corporate positions before spending a pleasant June weekend on the shores of Flathead Lake and a field trip to Glacier Park, which began easing their mutual suspicions. After discussing the human propensity to overuse resources and the corresponding need for self-discipline, Kazuo Aichi, the Japanese former minister of state for the Environment Agency, cast Japan as a role model for the world, as some 130 million people occupy an archipelago that remains two-thirds forested.
But later, conference director Matthew Taylor attempted to elevate the dialogue and returned to Aichi, asking how he could portray Japan as a model since so much of the nation’s resources come from overseas, notably timber products from the forests of Malaysia and Borneo.
Aichi dodged the question, choosing instead to discuss the sacrifices Japanese citizens make, including foregoing revenues by not developing forests and taxes paid instead to preserve it.
Aichi also bounced a similarly barbed question at Thomas Jorling, vice president of Environmental Health and Safety for International Paper, by asking what his company is doing to reduce paper consumption.
Jorling stated bluntly that his employer was not in the business of changing consumer habits, only in tracking those habits and providing a product at a profit within the existing framework of environmental regulations.
“The question is sustainable production, not artificial limits on consumption,” Jorling said.
Diringer had the last word during the first working session when a member of the U.S. State Department questioned how the world’s economic leader and greatest emitter of greenhouse gases could be induced to support international agreements such as Kyoto in the future.
“We’re not going to see action by the U.S. until the American public becomes engaged,” Diringer said. “The American public is perhaps the most important constituency.”