If You Don't Pay, You Don't Get to Play:
The US and the Kyoto Process

Michael H. Glantz
21 December
2004

If You Don't Pay, You Don't Get to Play:
The US and the Kyoto Process


There's a new club in town: the Kyoto Club. It was formed in mid-December 2004 in Argentina at a conference of governments meeting to discuss ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. The Club's membership is made up of countries whose governments have signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, a legal international accord to cope with the adverse causes and consequences of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. Policy makers have been working on this Protocol since 1997 and toward it since the early 1990s. To get going, the Club needed a quorum, a minimum number of members. It got that when Russia 's President Putin decided to sign on in the fall of 2004. The Protocol goes into force 90 days after ratification by Russia (16 February 2005, to be exact).

Two major greenhouse gas emitters, the USA and Australia, have not signed on to the Kyoto Protocol. In other words, the US government (the Congress as well as the President) has chosen not to join this particular club that now boasts a membership of 129 countries. Australia has followed the lead of the United States, forming a sort of “coalition of the willing,” that is, willing to say no to the Kyoto Protocol and process.

Each of these governments presents its arguments for its unwillingness to tie itself to mandatory steps to reduce CO2 emissions. They challenge the credibility of the global scientific community working on trying to understand the human influences on the global atmosphere. The US is responsible for about 25% of global CO2 emissions. It favors voluntary actions by industry to reduce CO2 emissions. The following headline which, I believe, captures a key expectation of the present-day Bush Administration, appeared in an official US Government press release at the 10th Conference of Parties (COP10) in Buenos Aires in mid-December 2004: Better Technologies Key to Addressing Climate Change.

Carbon dioxide (CO2 ) is called a trace gas, because its amount in the atmosphere is very small, especially when compared to other atmospheric gases. Scientists have learned over the past two centuries that CO2 in the atmosphere is a “greenhouse gas,” that is, it acts like a blanket that traps outgoing longwave radiation and heats up the Earth's lower atmosphere. Although it is not the only greenhouse gas, it is pervasive. The other greenhouse gases (GHGs) include methane [various natural and human-related sources], nitrous oxides [used in fertilizers], and various CFCs and their equally harmful substitutes).

The funny thing about membership-based clubs is that they have entrance requirements which exclude some potential members while embracing others. Those requirements could be as simple as asking to join the club as a member and as complicated as having to meet many restrictive requirements. For the latter type of membership, potential members have to “do something” or at the least give the appearance of doing something that works toward achieving the club's mission. For international agreements, a prospective member must agree to the signing onto, and agreeing at least in theory to abide by, the regulations and guidelines.

It is necessary to keep in mind that not all those governments that ratified the Kyoto Protocol did so because they believed the scientific reports that blame human activities for recent warming trends. Some have likely signed on to be a part of the Kyoto process with the purpose of acting as a “fifth column” (that is, to act as potential obstructionists if deliberations threaten their national interests). They will try to slow down progress toward mandatory regulations that call for large cuts in a nation's CO2 emissions.

The In's and Out's of COP10

It seems that we are entering a new stage in the global warming problematique. I believe that the formation of the Kyoto Club has created overnight (at COP 10 in Argentina in mid December 2004) a “glass wall,” a barrier of sorts, between members of the Club who profess that their countries will abide by the rules and regulations, mission and goals of the Protocol and those who have chosen to pay no attention to it. The difference between these two groups is the following: While Kyoto Club members may not reach their stated goals to reduce CO2 emissions, they have pledged at least to try. To the public at large, these countries are trying to deal with a potentially dangerous environmental problem of global proportions.

USA defaults on climate policy leadership to … the Kyoto Club

The campaign button to the right was handed out at the COP10 meeting. It is a fabricated image. President Bush did not really write or hold up such a message for all to see. The interesting thing about the button, whether one agrees with its message or not, is that the US Government has been singled out as THE obstructionist to global attempts to deal with the global warming issue.

The US (along with Australia) has been against placing any mandatory limits on their emissions of GHGs. Opposition to limits has been its guiding theme in how the US has treated the Kyoto Protocol process, as well as to the scientific findings that are driving (actually, accelerating) the Kyoto process. Those findings have come not only from modeling efforts but from observations of changes everywhere as well, such as glaciers melting just about everywhere on the globe. However, there are direct and indirect, obvious and not-so-obvious, consequences for not joining the Kyoto Club.

The Club's members have taken over the global leadership position on climate and global change issues. How then will this impact US participation in future deliberations on global warming? Will the US be able to influence the process as a powerless onlooker—an outsider, as opposed to as an active Club member?

There is a new dimension of the global warming issue on the horizon that is a direct result of the US decision not to sign on to Kyoto. The dimension that I am concerned about as an American citizen is as follows: with the creation of the Kyoto Club, there will be a subtle, creeping but steady, shift of blame for the occurrence, as well as damage, of weather and climate-related disasters. Instead of blaming global warming on industrialized nations in general for the adverse impacts of global warming (GHG emissions), people will increasingly blame the US for specific environmental changes and disasters as they occur around the globe.

The ‘blame game' begins

The process of blame has in fact already begun. For example, at COP10 Argentinean reporters blamed the melting of South American glaciers on the US, because of its uncontrolled emissions of GHGs. It is not that other countries are not implicated in the global warming of the atmosphere; after all, it's the combined amount of CO2 and other GHGs that are responsible for the warming. However, in the eye of the public, it will be increasingly apparent that the Kyoto Club membership—129 of them at present—as a whole (and despite the lack of commitment by some members) is trying to do something about it. For its part, the US has not yet chosen to treat the problem as an urgent and serious issue of planetary survival.

Those who care even slightly about the fate of the planet and about the well-being of present and future generations should worry about the mounting criticism of the US as being THE major obstacle to resolving the global warming problem. The US will be blamed for just about every bad climate- or weather-related problem that takes place on the planet, e.g., this flood or that drought was caused by America's greenhouse gas emissions. US scientists have already suggested that global warming worsened the severity of recent drought in the US. Tuvalu and other Pacific Island nations are planning to sue the industrialized countries for global warming-related sea level rise that would eventually submerge their territory. For example, a report on the Internet (8 October 04) at www.disasterrelief.org was based on the political activities captured in the following headline: Tiny Pacific Islands to Sue Over Global Warming.

The Inuit in the Arctic region are also planning to sue the US government for destroying their culture as a result of CO2 emission-related environmental changes within the northern latitudes. Their concern is for the well being of humans, ecosystems and wildlife, as suggested in this BBC webline: “Beaches turning to mud and changes in wildlife are among the signs of a warming climate recorded by an Inuit community in Canada.” It is therefore foreseeable that the blame for the impacts of environmental changes in climate sensitive regions, ecosystems or activities is very likely going to be directed toward the biggest single greenhouse gas emitting nation, the United States .

Many scientific studies based on a variety of research methods including climate model projections suggest that there will be an increase in the frequency as well as intensity of extreme events (droughts, floods, tropical storms, disease outbreaks), as the atmosphere warms. It is conceivable that, eventually, several of those damage claims are likely to morph into legal cases with the USA as the defendant.

The ugly scenario that I see emerging is that the intensified blame of the United States for global warming will enable other major greenhouse gas emitters (polluters) to avoid being scrutinized for their emissions levels. The public opinion spotlight will fall increasingly on the United States as being responsible for the global warming problem. From an international cooperation perspective, many countries see the US government as acting irresponsibly, kind of like the free child described in the 1960s in transactional analysis terms: “I want what I want when I want it.”

The US President has gone out of his way to made it a point not to lead Americans and people in other countries on this issue. The US Congress has followed the lead of President Bush. Nevertheless, it is increasingly clear that many Americans, companies, and city governments want to take effective concrete steps toward arresting, and then rolling back, the country's greenhouse gas emissions. Steps to limit greenhouse gas emissions by, say, the State of California can have a greater impact than those actions taken by many national governments with smaller economies.

Certain phrases come to mind: “Pay now or pay later” and “a stitch in time saves nine.”The US pubic will eventually have to bear the costs of abstaining from involvement in the Kyoto process and from the likely impacts of global warming in at least the following two ways:

(1) US goods could become blocked from international trade activities, if the manufacturing processes required to produce those goods surpass the GHG emission restrictions that are sure to be established by the members of the Kyoto Club;

(2) Cleaning up after disasters will likely be much more costly than the costs that would be incurred by trying to prevent or mitigate their impacts.

There is also a third-—hidden—cost that Americans have already begun to pay: the shame of having turned our political and ethical back on the rest of the globe, as other governments wrestle with a global warming of the planet's atmosphere to temperature levels that have not been witnessed for thousands if not tens of thousands of years.

In a way, it is like going to a casino to gamble: in order to play you have to pay. The US has chosen at this point in time not to relinquish any control over its greenhouse gas emissions to the Kyoto club. As a result, it will have considerably less influence on the decisions made by the club, decisions that may be come binding for many countries around the globe.

--Michael H. Glantz

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