White House, Congress Play for Time on Kyoto

Published January 1, 1998

The recently negotiated Kyoto Protocol is “dead on arrival,” according to Congressional opponents of the treaty who are, in the words of Senator Chuck Hagel (R- Nebraska), ready to “kill it on the Senate floor.”

In a frank, if grudging, acknowledgment of the protocol’s uncertain future on Capitol Hill, the Clinton administration has indicated it has no plans to submit the controversial document to the Senate for ratification until 1999 at the earliest. The President has until March 15, 1999 to sign the agreement for the United States. Thereafter, he can put the treaty before the Senate whenever he pleases; the Senate has no mechanism at its disposal to force the President to turn over the treaty.

The resulting standoff will give both sides of the Kyoto Protocol controversy time to make their case to the public in preparation for the final show-down.

The White House, its allies in the environmentalist community, and a handful of treaty supporters in the Senate would appear to have by far the more difficult task. The administration has never really challenged Senator Hagel’s assessment that the global warming treaty would receive no more than 15 votes if it were submitted to the Senate right away–far short of the 67 (two-thirds) needed for ratification.

Campaign of Persuasion Begins

To overcome the considerable opposition the Kyoto Protocol has brought forth, the White House is set to pursue three courses of action simultaneously:

^ The administration will seek to make the treaty more attractive by addressing some of its more controversial provisions and omissions in UN-sponsored conferences set for Bonn and Buenos Aires in 1998 and in behind-the-scenes negotiations.

^ Treaty backers will launch a massive public relations campaign designed to convince the American people that greenhouse gas-induced global warming is a serious threat best addressed by the Kyoto Protocol. Treaty opponents will be depicted as uncaring, selfish tools of special interests intent upon jeopardizing the well-being of future generations.

To the extent possible, the administration will attempt to obtain by regulatory fiat those elements of the plan least likely to be acceptable to the Senate. EPA’s recent tightening of standards for particulate matter (PM) and ground-level ozone will serve as a model for further regulatory action. The administration is also looking to expand the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) and may impose various fees for permits on the regulated community. The latter would be a carbon tax by another name–one that could be imposed without Congressional approval.

In pursuing these strategies, the White House will have some powerful weapons in its arsenal. The administration plans to spend about $2.1 billion annually on research into climate change. If any of that research produces results that suggest a human influence on the planet’s climate, as some no doubt will, the administration will claim “proof” that the global warming situation is as serious as it has maintained.

The administration will likely be aided in its public relations campaign by a largely uncritical and scientifically ignorant mass media. Bad news sells, and the American people can expect every heat wave, cold spell, flood, drought, hurricane, or tornado to be interpreted as further evidence that climate change is a reality. EPA Administrator Carol Browner recently told the Financial Times how successfully she invoked the image of children suffering from asthma in the debate over new clean air standards. She hinted that the same tactics would reappear in the forthcoming battle over the Kyoto Protocol.

Enlisting the Developing Nations

The administration also hopes to persuade developing countries to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions at some point in the not-too-distant future. Though China and India are unlikely to agree, others may be amenable to the technology transfers and financial assistance to be offered by the U.S., the World Bank, United Nations development agencies, and numerous foundations.

While the “commitments” of developing countries may turn out to be nothing more than empty promises–like those made by the industrialized nations at Rio in 1992–they will allow the administration to claim that poorer countries are coming on board. The White House will argue that the Senate’s refusal to ratify the treaty, despite the developing nations’ “concessions,” will make the U.S. an international pariah. “This will be a dirty fight,” an administration official told her fellow delegates on the flight back from Kyoto.

Facing Stiff Opposition

By embracing the Kyoto Protocol, the administration has entered a political mine field. In its convoluted formulas and arcane language, the treaty bears a striking resemblance to the First Lady’s ill-fated health-care plan of 1993-94–a fact that has not escaped the attention of Senate Republicans. Kyoto’s grandiose scheme, at the center of which is an international or transnational regime designed to control the use of energy, is even more ambitious in scale than Ira Magaziner’s multi-layered, bureaucratic super-structure that was to ration the nation’s health care.

Republican Congressional staffers are convinced that the more the public learns about the treaty, the less they will like it. Noting that the treaty is aimed more at U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases than at the emissions of any other country or group of countries, opponents believe that a solid case can be made that American workers will be the ultimate losers of the Kyoto Protocol. Both the House and the Senate are planning a series of hearings on the accord, during which members intend to expose the treaty for the bad deal they believe it to be.

Treaty opponents have been unimpressed by administration plans to “fill in the gaps” in the treaty at UN-sponsored meetings later this year. These gaps include such sticky issues as the participation of developing countries and the nature of the enforcement mechanism. The latter raises serious concerns about possible infringements on U.S. sovereignty. Treaty opponents note that agreements at future conferences on these issues and others will not be part of the Kyoto Protocol and will not be subject to Senate ratification.

Even before treaty negotiations concluded in Kyoto, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) took issue with Vice President Al Gore’s confident prediction that the Senate would approve anything the administration submitted for ratification. “”Let me assure you,” Lott wrote his Republican colleague, Chuck Hagel, on December 9, “this is not the case.” Lott has laid out five criteria by which the Senate will judge any climate change treaty:

  • no erosion of American sovereignty;
  • no hidden taxes;
  • no loss of American jobs;
  • no disadvantage to American businesses; and
  • no special advantages to polluters in the Third World.

Lott has since made it clear that, in his view, the deal negotiated in Kyoto fails on all five points.

Little Support from Democrats

Many Democrats are also uncomfortable with the Kyoto Protocol, attributing their loss of House and Senate seats in 1994, at least in part, to the Clinton health care fiasco. With the exception of Senators John Kerry (Massachusetts) and Charles Lieberman (Connecticut), no Democrats have pledged their undying support for the treaty. And even Kerry and Lieberman, fearing the worst, don’t want the accord submitted to the Senate this year.

It has escaped no one’s attention that organized labor is very unhappy with what the administration negotiated in Kyoto. While labor is likely to hold its fire until after November’s midterm elections, after that all bets are off. The Kyoto Protocol’s potential for converting auto workers, coal miners, and other blue-collar voters into the latest version of Reagan Democrats already has Republicans salivating.

Science Still in Doubt

As if the political obstacles were not enough, the administration can expect treaty opponents to continue to challenge the uncertain science behind its global warming policies. Before the Senate allows the Kyoto Protocol to dramatically limit Americans’ use of energy–thus conceding the economic slowdown that will inevitably result–lawmakers may demand from the administration a lot more evidence that there really is a problem.