Beyond Kyoto

Today -- Wednesday, February 16, 2005 -- marks a date that some hoped would never arrive. The much-reviled Kyoto Protocol, which U.S. businesses have spent a fortune to defeat and which President George W. Bush summarily rejected in 2001, now enters into force without American participation. While glad to be spared from this new regulatory regime, U.S.-based greenhouse-gas emitters can hardly regard the world's mobilization to address global warming (141 nations have joined Kyoto) with equanimity. Now that other countries have acted, changes at home may not be far behind.

Indeed, because Kyoto has taken so long to get going (the treaty was originally adopted, but not ratified by participating countries, in late 1997), the conversation today has already shifted to what comes next. All sides agree the protocol has flaws, most conspicuously its exemption of developing countries. Moreover, Kyoto obligations end in 2012, meaning the treaty will only have a minor long-term climate-mitigation effect unless it spurs further emission-reduction policies. Kyoto was always conceived of as a first step.

No wonder, then, that a rich discussion has already begun about future policies, both those that would build upon the basic Kyoto structure and those that would move in different directions. Perhaps most notably, last week Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman reintroduced their Climate Stewardship Act, which would use a market based "cap and trade" program to ensure emission reductions. (Kyoto, too, incorporates emissions trading.)

Passage of the Climate Stewardship Act would help lay the groundwork for U.S. participation in the future global climate-mitigation agreements that could succeed Kyoto. In 2003, this bill lost in the Senate by a historic 43-to-55 vote, with another vote probably just a matter of time. U.S. states have also begun to take action on climate change; most prominently, California has enacted legislation to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from passenger vehicles.

Amid all this activity, the arrival of Kyoto may be best understood as a kind of international engine-revving on the issue of climate change. That roar of enthusiasm has tremendous symbolic importance. Not only does Kyoto signal that the rest of the world plans to deal with global climate change with or without U.S. participation -- essentially, to lead in our absence. In a sense, it also proves the reality of the problem at issue, far more definitively than any individual scientific report could.

Those who remain in denial about the seriousness of global climate change must now defend a truly ludicrous position. They must argue that the rest of the world is suffering from a mass delusion, a fantasy so powerful that over a hundred nations have independently fallen for the same alarmist myth; and furthermore that the 35 developed nations facing binding commitments under Kyoto have voluntarily agreed to measures that would severely damage their economies all for nothing. When we hear someone like Senator James Inhofe speak of a climate change "hoax," it's pretty clear that he has a conspiracy theory along these lines in mind.

How do all of these developments affect the Bush administration? In truth, on the issue of climate change, nothing may be able to affect the Bush administration. Ten years from now, however, the current president's eight-year term may look more and more like a prolonged detour on a road that, nevertheless, led to serious climate-mitigation policies.

Consider a close analogy: the story of how this nation gradually mobilized to address the problem of acid rain. Acid rain (a more accurate technical term is "acid deposition") results from sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollutants emitted from power plants and vehicles. Upon reaching the earth, such deposition can cause a wide variety of ecosystem damages, including to trees and waterways.

For eight years, Ronald Reagan's administration humored domestic coal and electric interests by delaying action on acid rain and calling for "more research." (Sound familiar?) Meanwhile, scientific reports steadily accumulated, each making the Reagan administration's policy seem just a bit more out of touch.

Eventually, continued inaction became impossible, and it fell to President George H.W. Bush to actually address the issue. In 1990, Bush signed amendments to the Clean Air Act to control sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, establishing a landmark emissions-trading regime. The market-based acid-rain program would later serve as an inspiration both for the Kyoto Protocol and for the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act.

As this story suggests, environmental problems that are real -- i.e., that have been repeatedly reinforced by scientific investigations -- don't just go away on their own. Rather, a predictable process occurs in which denialists either convert into believers or else fall increasingly out of touch.

Throughout Bush's presidency so far, the White House has cast itself in denialist mode. Meanwhile, the Arctic is melting, and NASA scientists are already suggesting that 2005 may end up being the hottest year on record. Looking forward to the Kyoto era and then beyond it, one thing is clear: Reality will prevail. Eventually.

Chris Mooney is a Prospect senior correspondent whose weekly column will appear each week. His book on the politicization of science will be published later this year by Basic Books. His daily blog and other writings can be found at www.chriscmooney.com.

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