Kyoto is dead

Published May 1, 2001

The Bush White House rocked Washington, DC and the world on March 28 when it acknowledged it would take no action on the Kyoto Protocol, the global warming treaty negotiated in 1997 by the Clinton administration.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the administration would not seek to reverse former Vice President Al Gore’s signature on the Kyoto agreement. But, he said, the White House will not send the treaty to the Senate for ratification, effectively burying it.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman told reporters the Kyoto protocol was dead as far as the administration was concerned, and that if the Europeans and Japanese wanted to reach an agreement, they would have to abandon the outlines of the accord and take a different approach.

“[W]e have no interest in implementing that treaty,” Whitman said. “If there’s a general agreement that we need to be addressing the global climate change issue, [the question is] how do we do it in a way that allows us to make some progress, instead of spending our time committed to something that isn’t going to go.”

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer confirmed that the administration will seek a fresh approach at negotiations scheduled for July in Bonn, Germany. “It’s important to include the world in the treaty, not exempt most of the world,” explained White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. “To exempt most of the world is not a treaty the President thinks is in the interest of this country, or would get the job done.”

“We do not support the approach of the Kyoto treaty,” Vice President Dick Cheney concurred in an interview with MSNBC over the March 17 weekend. “If you’re really serious about greenhouse gases, one of the solutions to that problem is to go back, and let’s take another look at nuclear-power plants. . . . They don’t emit any carbon dioxide. They don’t emit greenhouse gases.”

Cheney is heading a Cabinet-level task force exploring better ways to address the risk of climate change.

Keeping a campaign pledge

While a candidate, Bush consistently opposed adoption of the Kyoto global warming treaty, saying he would reject any proposal that “would drastically increase the cost of gasoline, home heating oil, natural gas, and electricity.” He assured voters that any climate-related actions taken by the U.S. would include “market-based mechanisms.”

As President, Bush confirmed just two weeks before the bombshell Kyoto announcement that his administration does not support regulating emissions of CO2, the “greenhouse gas” targeted by the Clinton-Gore administration.

In a March 13 letter to Republican Senators Chuck Hagel (Nebraska), Jesse Helms (North Carolina), Larry Craig (Idaho), and Pat Roberts (Kansas), Bush wrote, “I oppose the Kyoto Protocol because it exempts 80 percent of the world, including major population centers such as China and India, from compliance, and would cause serious harm to the U.S. economy.”

“I do not believe,” the President continued, “that the government should impose on power plants mandatory emissions reductions for carbon dioxide, which is not a ‘pollutant’ under the Clean Air Act.”

The world reacts

The administration’s rejection of Kyoto provoked a stunned and angry reaction among America’s allies in Europe and Japan.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who came to Washington just two days after the announcement to meet Bush for the first time, appealed on behalf of the European Union’s 15 countries that the United States reconsider its position. The Japanese ambassador for global environmental affairs, Kazuo Asakai, noted, “Japan will be dismayed and deeply disappointed” if the United States walks away from what the Japanese government deems to be a “very serious and important” agreement.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Connecticut Democrat), Al Gore’s running mate in last year’s election contest, said the White House’s move to discard the treaty marks the United States as a “renegade” and shows it is out of “tune with the world’s thinking.”

Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, agreed, warning the announcement dangerously erodes U.S. credibility in Europe. “The President has walked away from yet another campaign promise on global warming, and infuriated our allies in the process,” he said. “Declaring the Kyoto negotiations dead rather than proposing changes which would make it acceptable will delay action on global warming for years and years.”

But Glenn F. Kelly, executive director of the Global Climate Coalition, disagreed. “One of the things the administration should be applauded for is early recognition that the Kyoto protocol is significantly flawed and that continuing to invest efforts and resources into fixing it will simply be futile.”

Backsliding, or sound policy?

Liberal Democrats have gone to great lengths to portray the Bush administration’s moves as “backsliding” or, in the words of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California), a “breathtaking betrayal.” Waxman’s advocates in the government-subsidized, Washington DC-based wing of the environmental movement quickly and predictably echoed the claim.

Daniel Becker, a Sierra Club spokesperson, said on CNN, “The American people don’t support what the President is doing. They don’t want him to knuckle under to the pressure from the big polluters and to the big contributors. They want him to protect all of our air, all of our atmosphere, and they want a safe and sound environment.”

“The new President came to town saying he would change the tone and change the climate in Washington. I guess we didn’t realize it was the real climate he wanted to change,” grumbled House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Missouri).

But Bush’s chief economist explained on March 18 that the United States, in the midst of an energy crisis, cannot afford to knuckle under to pressure from the liberal environmentalists. Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” White House chief economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey said carbon dioxide caps could cause more energy blackouts like the ones that have plagued California.

“We have a major energy crisis. . . . We have a choice in this country of having the lights on or, at least in the short run, having more carbon dioxide,” Lindsey said.

The country’s energy woes–including shortages and high prices–are caused by a failure to build infrastructure, Lindsay noted. “We need more refineries, we need more power plants, we need more pipelines,” he said.

Bush, too, cited energy policy when he defended his March 13 letter before a group of reporters gathered in East Brunswick, New Jersey. “We’ve got an energy crisis in America that we have to deal with in a common-sense way,” Bush explained on March 14.

“Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, and it should not be defined as such,” said J. Brett Harvey, president of CONSOL Energy Inc., the nation’s largest underground coal producer. And Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions could be achieved only one way. “You’re talking about the reduction of burning coal; you’re talking about nothing else,” he warned.

“We use a lot of coal and we need a lot of coal to fuel our plants, to make sure Americans have got the ability to heat and cool their homes,” Bush explained to the New Jersey reporters. He said regulating carbon dioxide emissions would hinder the efficiency of coal-burning power plants and force greater use of natural gas–a fuel that has more than doubled in price in the past year.

“The Bush administration comes out of this episode looking pretty good,” commented Joseph Bast, president of the Chicago-based Heartland Institute. “It was willing to take a courageous and controversial public stand in order to stay true to a key message it delivered during the campaign.”