Global Warming and the Big Shill

Because Vice President Al Gore is an ardent environmentalist, the Clinton White House has placed a high priority on getting an international global warming treaty. One member of the National Security Council is assigned to oversee the treaty that the United States and other industrialized nations agreed to in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997. And the White House has a Climate Change Task Force consisting of eight people. But it looks as though the administration will not even send the treaty to the Senate for ratification before Clinton's term expires. That's partly because it is having difficulty getting developing countries, particularly China, India, and Mexico, to agree to specific limits on their release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But it is also because even before the Kyoto meeting occurred, conservative Republicans joined forces with business foes of the treaty to wage a fierce, take-no-prisoners campaign against it. Not the least because of Gore's involvement in the treaty, killing it has become a conservative cause celebre.

The Kyoto agreement grew out of discussions that began in the late 1980s, prompted by scientific concern that the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was causing unprecedented increases in temperature that could not be explained simply by natural causes. These increases might benefit Siberia and northern Canada, but they could also cause catastrophic changes in sea level and weather, wiping away communities and threatening the world's food supply. The science is not conclusive, and probably never will be because of the sheer complexity of the models involved, but the weight of evidence has swung to the side of those who argue that human factors are causing the temperature rise.

In 1992, 178 of the world's nations met in Rio de Janeiro at the United Nations Earth Summit. The conference endorsed the idea of cutting carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2000, but the Bush administration balked at the idea of binding agreements. In 1996, in the wake of new British findings that 1995 had been the warmest year on record, the Clinton administration announced it would accept binding limits on emissions if other countries followed suit.

Then, in 1997 at Kyoto, the United States joined 38 other countries including Japan and members of the European Union in agreeing to reduce its emission of greenhouse gases below 1990 levels by the year 2012. But most of the developing countries refused to agree to any binding limits. Clinton, prodded by a 95–0 Senate resolution, declared that he would not bring the treaty up for Senate ratification until the developing countries agreed to specific limits. The U.S. has continued to negotiate to win the participation of developing nations and to gain support for financial instruments—like emissions trading—that would reduce the economic cost of the treaty. (Through emissions trading, a company that has exceeded its emissions standards in one country can gain emissions credits by financing emissions-reducing technology in another country.)

There are clearly problems with the treaty. Without participation by developing nations, it could encourage companies in developed nations to transfer their operations in order to avoid the cost of complying with stricter environmental rules. But if these developing countries were brought into the treaty, even at lower levels of compliance, the treaty itself would be an important milestone. There are environmental problems that countries cannot solve by themselves and will not solve voluntarily. For instance, the voluntary agreement at Rio to hold emissions levels to 1990 levels by 2000 has already been hopelessly breached. Getting an agreement for binding limits—even a partial, imperfect one—would represent a major step forward.

In Washington, there are two very distinct camps in the debate over the treaty. One set of organizations and businesses agrees that an international, binding treaty is necessary, but disagrees about how flawed the Kyoto treaty is and what needs to be done to improve it. Many environmental organizations, such as the National Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace, would probably back the treaty as is because they believe the threat of global warming trumps the economic strains the treaty could cause. Some large corporations, including United Technologies, Boeing, and British Petroleum, have worked through the International Climate Change Partnership to offer critical support. "We have commended the treaty from the standpoint . . . [that it is] a good start that needs a lot of work," explained Kevin Fay, the executive director of the partnership.

The other camp, consisting of businesses, organizations, conservative politicians, and political operatives, rejects the very idea of a mandatory international agreement and has waged a relentless campaign to kill the treaty. Auto mobile manufacturers, oil and mining firms, and electrical utilities believe that new limits on emissions could raise their costs and reduce the demand for their products. Working through the Global Climate Coalition, they have lobbied Congress to defeat the treaty. They claim that they support "voluntary measures," but balk at anything beyond that. "We are in favor of reducing greenhouse gases without anyone telling us what to do, including the UN," coalition spokesman Frank Maisano explained.

In addition to lobbying on Capitol Hill, many of the companies and trade associations in the coalition, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have funded the Global Climate Information Project, which is waging a $13 million national media campaign against the treaty.


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Conservative Republicans in Con gress are glad to lend a hand to businesses that have contributed generously to their campaigns. The biggest campaign donor to Mich igan Represent ative Joe Knollen berg, one of the leaders of the anti-treaty offensive, is General Motors. The donor list of Indiana Repre sent ative David McIn tosh, a former director of Dan Quayle's Council on Competit iveness and former lobbyist for Citizens for a Sound Economy, is a who's who of anti-treaty forces. But the Rep ublicans are also motivated by ideological opposition to government regulation and international organizations (the latter the product of a growing isolationist sentiment on the right) and by a desire to damage Gore, the expected Democratic presidential nominee in 2000.

These treaty opponents have not been content merely to round up enough Senate votes to defeat the treaty when it comes up for ratification. They want to kill it before it ever gets to the Senate floor by preventing the administration from either defending or improving it. This year, prodded by the companies in the Global Climate Coalition, the Republicans introduced the following riders to the appropriations bill:

• A rider to the bill funding the Environmental Protection Agency which would bar the agency from undertaking outreach efforts or seminars to educate the public about global climate change.

• A rider submitted by Rep resentative Knollenberg to the appropriations for the Veterans Administration and the De partment of Housing and Urban Development prohibiting the use of federal funds to "develop, propose, or issue rules, regulations, decrees, or orders for the purpose of implementation, or in contemplation of implementation" of the treaty.

• A rider to the foreign operations appropriations effectively blocking the U.S. from encouraging "developing country participation" in the Kyoto treaty.

Knollenberg said of his rider, "We want the EPA to understand that it must stay out of the arena of actually advocating the Kyoto agreement. We don't want to see any signs of any movement that would implement the protocol." The Republicans and their business allies saw an additional bonus in the rider: it could kill any new environmental regulations by tying them to Kyoto. Indeed, after the House and Senate agreed to Knollenberg's rider, a group of Republicans demanded that the EPA stop trying to regulate the methane gas released by landfills.

The Republicans also attacked the treaty by attempting to tie up in red tape any agencies that would be in charge of promoting and implementing it. Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel's Sub committee on International Economic Policy, Representative Don Schaefer's Energy and Power Subcommittee, Representative James F. Sen senbrenner's Science Committee, and McIntosh's Subcommittee on National Eco nomic Growth began inundating federal agencies with questions and requests for materials about the treaty. Hagel's subcommittee is holding up the nomination of Frank Loy to become undersecretary of state for global affairs until the State Department responds to 60 single-spaced pages of questions. McIntosh's subcommittee has made 60 different requests to 22 different agencies. As of October, agencies have already provided him with 400,000 pages of documentation. Twenty staff members from the Council on Environ mental Quality have spent more than 500 hours responding to McIntosh's questions. And McIntosh, who regularly rebuffed congressional requests when he was director of Quayle's Council on Com pet itiveness, has threatened to hold the beleaguered government officials in contempt for not furnishing sufficient documentation.

The treaty's opponents have also used television and radio ads to take aim at public opinion, which in the last two years has shifted decidedly in favor of addressing global warming. (An Ohio State University survey earlier this year found that 59 percent of Americans thought the U.S. government should do "a great deal" or "quite a bit" to combat global warming.) Some of these ads, run by the Global Climate Information Project, the Com petitive Enterprise Institute, and Citizens for a Sound Economy, have been fair—one television ad from the Global Climate Infor mation Project focused on the lack of commitment from developing nations. But other ads deliberately misinform the public. The Com petitive Enterprise Institute, which is heavily funded by oil companies, states in one radio ad that "Thousands of scientists agree there's no solid evidence of a global warming problem." Cit izens for a Sound Economy asserts that "the vast majority" of "state climatologists, who are the real experts," believe that "reducing carbon dioxide levels to 1990 standards will not prevent warmer temp eratures on earth." True enough, but entirely misleading. The limits agreed to at Kyoto are intended to slow, but not reverse, global warming.

The lobbying offensive against the treaty has not been entirely successful. The business lobbyists got Congress to pass the anti-Kyoto riders, but the Clinton administration, with strong support from the environmental movement, threatened to veto the appropriations bills if the riders were not removed. The Republicans finally agreed to remove all but Knollenberg's rider, and it was amended to prevent the government from undertaking activities aimed "solely" at complying with the Kyoto treaty. But the anti-treaty lobby had still made its point. It demonstrated that the Repub lican majority in Congress would go to extremes to kill the treaty, even if the administration were to succeed in improving its terms.

White House officials say that winning over developing countries is a greater obstacle to treaty ratification than overcoming the Republican and business opposition. But the two are related. When the United States has demanded that other countries make commitments, foreign officials have expressed skepticism that the U.S. government, facing determined opposition at home, will be able to carry out its own commitments. Both the White House and the environmental movement are scaling back their hopes for when the treaty could be ratified. One White House official admitted to me that it was "hard to imagine" the administration sending the treaty to the Senate in 1999. But if 1999 is difficult to imagine, 2000—an election year—is inconceivable.

Greg Wetstone, the National Resources Defense Fund's legislative director, now compares the Kyoto treaty to the chemical weapons and biodiversity treaties, both of which took a long time to ratify. "It could be easily into the next century," he says. But Wetstone also acknowledges that there is an important difference between the threat of global warming and that of chemical weapons. If the science is to be believed, then with each year that a binding agreement is not reached, the problem of carbon dioxide emissions and global warming will grow worse, and the measures required to address them will become more demanding and therefore less likely to win support. Until the political climate changes, an effective global warming treaty may never come about.

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