Editorial: The Kyoto alternative

Aug. 8, 2005
The best thing about a new approach to climate change is that it’s a new approach.

The best thing about a new approach to climate change is that it’s a new approach. The next best thing is that it highlights errors of the old approach.

The agreement on environmental and energy cooperation signed at the end of July by the US and five Asia-Pacific countries has virtues beyond those. It’s voluntary. It focuses on technology. It integrates environmental progress, including precautions against global warming, with energy security, economic development, and the fight against poverty. What’s best of all, however, is that the agreement isn’t the Kyoto Protocol and doesn’t proceed from the myopic zeal that produced that futile colossus.

International emergency

Since the late 1980s, when theories about human intensification of the greenhouse effect began to raise popular alarm, the movement’s political patrons have treated global warming as an international emergency. Governments had to act, they insisted. Taxes had to rise. People had to quit using fossil energy. Lifestyles had to change. It all had to happen now. There was no time to study the problem. There was no time to assess costs against probable outcomes.

So Kyoto happened. Well-meaning officials of governments from around the world met, negotiated, and specified how governments were to attempt to manage the climate. They defined baselines of greenhouse gas emissions and targets for reductions against those standards. They granted exemptions. They created a credit-and-trade mechanism. They pressed for ratification. This year they won ratification. They declared it to be but a first step toward what really was necessary.

And the whole time, they ignored, chided, dismissed, and in every way possible dodged questions that legitimate discourse would have welcomed. By how much, in view of other warming causes and great uncertainty about human influence, can achievement of the emission targets be expected to lower average global temperature? Does the likely effect warrant the enormous cost? What about the potentially benign consequences of warming and carbon dioxide enrichment of the atmosphere? Might adaptation to the consequences of warming be preferable to costly precaution? How do governments reconcile the imposition of growth restraints with the economic needs of burgeoning populations in the world’s poorest areas?

Global warming politics has never welcomed questions like those. The international community decided at Kyoto what needed to be done. The international community no longer wishes to discuss the issue-or at least anything that creates doubt about the wisdom of Kyoto.

Yet Kyoto looks less and less wise as time passes. Its biggest champions, most of them in Europe, are finding the emissions targets impossible to meet at costs anywhere near acceptable. They’re beginning to see that their regulatory plunge will prove, in terms of the effect on evident warming, to have been pointless. It remains to be seen whether they recognize and can learn from flaws of the Kyoto approach: the mandates, the contrived urgency, the failure to balance costs and benefits, the disregard of other global concerns, the intolerance of dissent. It remains to be seen whether they understand the extent to which the coercive nature of the Kyoto approach undermines the case for urgent response to climate change.

The new approach

A new and better approach thus might rescue global warming precaution from the extremism that has so discredited it. The US and its new Asia-Pacific partners aren’t saying that nothing should be done in the face of rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and intermittent surges in temperature measurements over the past century. Inevitable allegations to the contrary-inevitable because the partnership represents an alternative to Kyoto-will be wrong. The US, Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea are saying instead that warming responses should be voluntary, practical, and consistent with other international imperatives, including economic growth, energy security, progress on all environmental fronts, and technological advance.

Kyoto fans won’t like this approach. They won’t like the subdued role of central authority, the failure to call for general sacrifice, the absence of targets. They won’t like the freedom it leaves people to make choices about what they do, where they go, how they work, and what fuels they consume. But Kyoto fans at least should appreciate a crucial difference between the new approach and theirs: The new approach might work.