Kyoto and Oslo: The failed legacy of Clinton-Gore

Published May 1, 2001

The election defeats of former Vice President Al Gore and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak would seem to spell the end of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and of the Oslo agreement on Middle East peace. Gore will forever be identified with the Kyoto accord and can justly claim to have brought it into being. Barak, almost single-handedly, tried to carry the Oslo process to a near-conclusion by offering extraordinary concessions.

There are certain parallels between the negotiations over the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which had their start with the 1992 Climate Treaty, and the Oslo peace process, which began in 1993. Both sets of negotiations collapsed in 2000, after much political investment and in spite (or perhaps because?) of strong pressure from the Clinton White House.

And in both cases, Kyoto and Oslo, politicians and various interest groups are now scurrying about, desperately trying to put the pieces back together again.

It will take strong actions by President George W. Bush and newly elected Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to keep this from happening. In campaigning, Bush explicitly rejected Kyoto, and Sharon pronounced Oslo as “dead.” But carrying out their respective pledges won’t be easy, especially against fierce domestic and international opposition.

Kyoto had a deceptively simple formula: Cut greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent. Sounds easy, except that it refers to a 1990 base. By 2010, this would have meant a reduction of 30 to 40 percent for the United States by rationing fuels or by raising energy prices sharply. The developing countries, including China and India, would not have to cut energy use at all, and would receive financial subsidies to boot.

Moreover, Kyoto’s scientific basis is shaky, and it would be quite ineffective in reducing the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, even if it were carried out punctiliously. Kyoto was clearly unrealistic, costly, and politically risky.

The Oslo accord also had a deceptively simple formula: “Land for Peace.” It, too, was doomed, because it was clear from the start that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat did not intend to provide the basics for peace; one need only listen to his speeches in Arabic or look at textbooks for Palestinian school children. Just the same, money rolled in from Western nations to finance his “police force” and other extravagant and/or illegal ventures. Oslo was clearly unrealistic, costly, and politically risky.

What killed the Kyoto negotiations at the Hague conference in November 2000 was the rigid position of the Green ideologues. The U.S. sought flexibility to make Kyoto less costly: unlimited emission trading and credits for carbon absorbed by better management of forests and agricultural soils. By the end of the Hague exercise, the U.S. was willing to reduce credits from trading and sinks from 100 percent to 10 percent; but the Europeans, catering to Green party activists, wanted all emission cuts and zero credits.

In the Middle East negotiations, Ehud Barak ended up offering 94 percent of the West Bank, but Arafat wanted just about all. Perhaps Barak offered too much too soon, yielding to pressure applied by Clinton at Camp David. [We recall that at the Wye Plantation talks the previous Israeli prime minister resisted minor concessions beyond about 13 percent.]

In both negotiations, there was extreme urgency emanating from President Clinton, who wanted to rack up some foreign policy successes before bowing out of office. But perhaps he pushed too hard. Evidently, the Green politicians in Europe, encouraged by U.S. concessions in the final days at The Hague, thought the U.S. would yield all the way. But without flexibility in handling emissions, the U.S. Senate would never even consider approval.

Arafat may have had similar illusions. However, had Barak yielded on Jerusalem, there would have been no chance at all of approval by the Knesset or from the required popular referendum.

Destined to fail?

But there is also another quite different explanation. Perhaps European politicians wanted Kyoto to fail, as long as they could blame it on American “intransigence.” It would let them off the hook. They could still burnish their environmental credentials and reap plaudits from their Green parties, without having to enforce punitive energy taxes on their rebellious citizens.

And Arafat? With territory transferred and “peace” concluded, he would have left the world stage and become head of a minor piece of real estate called Palestine, with a rebellious and rapidly growing population, and a miserable economic future forever beholden to international charity. How much better to pose as the Islamic liberator of Jerusalem, the new Saladin who defeated the Crusaders and removed the infidels from “sacred Arab soil.”

In both cases, Kyoto and Oslo, ideologues seem to have triumphed in the short term; in doing so, they derailed Bill Clinton’s ambitions and scuttled his compromises. Now they stand to lose their long-term goals. In Israel, the election of Ariel Sharon may spell an end to Oslo.

The Bush administration now has the opportunity for new starts in climate change and the Middle East. They would be well advised, however, to heed Senator Pat Moynihan’s policy prescription of benign neglect.

Fred Singer is president of the Science & Environmental Policy Project. .