Strike a deal, any deal

Nov. 8, 1999
The response to last month's rejection by the US Senate of a nuclear test-ban treaty follows a disturbing pattern with implications for the Kyoto protocol on global warming.

The response to last month's rejection by the US Senate of a nuclear test-ban treaty follows a disturbing pattern with implications for the Kyoto protocol on global warming. Reaction by treaty supporters in Europe and among Democrats in the US to the Senate action raises the question: Is it possible to consider modern treaty proposals on their merits?

It is beginning to appear that the aim of international initiatives nowadays is to strike a deal, any deal. That's dangerous.

Legitimate concerns

When the Senate nixed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on Oct. 21, howls about new US isolationism arose from the White House and in Europe. The protests portrayed US opponents to the treaty as dismissive of US responsibilities in the world, as more concerned about domestic politics than about global problems.

Lost in all the anguish were the altogether legitimate concerns that senators had about the treaty as proposed. Is it so difficult to imagine that a majority of senators honestly believed that the treaty conflicted with US interests? Serious discourse would accommodate such an interpretation of the Senate vote.

Instead, Clinton and fellow Democrats turned the outcome into an excuse to scold congressional Republicans for a list of transgressions among which isolation was but one (OGJ, Oct. 25, 1999, p. 21). And political leaders in continental Europe hinted that American interest in a system of defense against missile attack amounts to vile international selfishness.

A similar atmosphere has developed around the global warming issue. The existence of a deal, the Kyoto protocol, drives the debate. Opposition evokes suspicion about motive.

The fact remains that Kyoto is a deplorable deal. Questions about the scientific assumptions underlying it grow with time. The protocol excludes developing countries, which will contribute most to future growth in emissions of greenhouse gases. And it sets goals that affected countries can't meet without damaging their economies.

In the US, the Senate has promised not to ratify the treaty as long as developing countries get a free ride. The position is proper. Why should the US or any country incur heavy cost for a treaty destined to fail? Why should any country compromise sovereignty for the sake of a treaty based on very inconclusive science?

Treaty supporters too often answer questions like that, questions that go to the heart of the treaty's merits or lack thereof, by not answering. Instead, they question the motives of questioners. They commonly gripe, for example, that opposition stems from the political influence of oil companies and automobile manufacturers. They never manage to deal forthrightly with the very real, very important scientific and economic questions about their political achievement at Kyoto.

Last week, the fifth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, a Kyoto precursor, was to meet in Bonn. A measure of seriousness of the proceedings will be the amount of attention paid to recent studies, such as one prepared by WEFA Inc. for the American Council for Capital Formation's Center for Policy Research, expressing strong doubt that countries can meet their Kyoto targets except at very heavy cost.

A treaty certain to raise costs, unlikely to succeed, possibly unnecessary, and probably impossible for affected countries to comply with deserves serious scrutiny. But a deal is at hand. For supporters of the deal, the sole remaining issue is ratification. Anything that gets in the way is suspect.

The pattern

It is no stretch to link the nuclear and global-warming treaties. Clinton did so after the nuclear proposal failed in the Senate. He added to his list of signs of "new isolationism" the failure by US lawmakers to "adopt our [his administration's] proposals to do our part to stem the tide of global warming."

See? A deal is at hand. Anything that gets in the way is suspect. Even if the deal is bad.