Kyoto Anniversary: What it Means Today

Ten years ago today the U.S. Senate did something that at the time seemed significant and now seems remarkably foresightful. By a vote of 95 to 0, the Senate voted in favor of the Byrd-Hagel resolution, which expressed the Sense of the Senate on the upcoming global warming negotiations in Kyoto, Japan.

Exercising its constitutional authority to advise the President on treaties, the Senate resolved that the U.S. should not sign any international agreement to set mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions that: (1) did not also set emissions limits on developing countries; and (2) that “would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States.” Further, the Senate advised that any treaty sent to it for ratification “should be accompanied by a detailed explanation of any legislation or regulatory actions” that would be required to implement it, plus “an analysis of the detailed financial costs and other impacts on the economy” that would result from implementing it.

To a large extent, the position that the Clinton administration took at Kyoto met the Senate’s requirements. But when the negotiations faltered and threatened to collapse, President Clinton allowed Vice President Al Gore to fly to Kyoto in early December 1997 and capitulate. The resulting Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992 met neither of the Senate’s conditions.

Although President Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, it’s no surprise that he never sent it to the Senate for ratification. While President Clinton received very little criticism for not submitting Kyoto for ratification, when President Bush made the same decision in 2001 (for good Byrd-Hagel-ish reasons), the reaction was rather different. Environmental pressure groups, major European leaders, and leading Democrats branded Bush as the world’s top environmental criminal.

Although Bush was right to reject Kyoto, in my opinion he went wrong when he did not make his case squarely on the Byrd-Hagel resolution. He should either have removed the U.S.’s signature (as he did from the International Criminal Court treaty) on the grounds that it didn’t meet the conditions set by Byrd-Hagel; or, even better, he should have sent the treaty to the Senate for a ratification vote together with the required analysis of the measures and costs to implement it. There is no doubt that the Senate would have defeated it overwhelmingly — and still would today. A Senate vote would have made it clear to the European Union and the international environmental establishment that Kyoto was dead in the U.S. and not just because President Bush was a Texas oilman.

What has happened since Byrd-Hagel has confirmed the Senate’s foresight and prudence. The EU is proving that it is possible to incur high costs to cut emissions without actually cutting them. Since Kyoto was negotiated in 1997, emissions have actually been rising faster in percentage terms in the EU than in the U.S.

As for developing nations, no one in 1997 predicted that annual Chinese emissions would equal U.S. emissions within a decade, as happened this year. And Chinese emissions will continue to rise rapidly if their economic growth continues at around 10 percent per year.

Thus, had the Senate ratified Kyoto, the U.S. would now be incurring huge economic costs to reduce emissions, while China and other rising competitors such as India and Brazil would not.

But that is history. The question is, what is the relevance of Byrd-Hagel for U.S. policy today? Global warming alarmists answer, none. And they also point out that the Senate agreed when it superseded Byrd-Hagel with the Bingaman-Domenici Sense of the Senate on Climate Change Resolution in 2005. That resolution said Congress should enact mandatory limits to “slow, stop, and reverse the growth” of greenhouse gas emissions.

True, but Bingaman-Domenici also kept the Byrd-Hagel proviso that such limits should “not significantly harm” the economy. Instead of requiring that developing nations also adopt energy-rationing policies, Bingaman-Domenici merely suggests that the programs enacted should be designed so as to encourage other countries to adopt similar programs. It does not therefore supersede Byrd-Hagel, but rather softens somewhat the conditions for enacting an energy-rationing scheme.

As the Congress and President Bush move forward with new global warming policies, I think they would be wise to do so within the limits set by Byrd-Hagel, or at the least within the slightly less confining limits set by Bingaman-Domenici. What would this mean specifically? President Bush agreed at the G-8 plus 5 summit in June to participate in new international negotiations on what should follow after Kyoto expires on January 1, 2013. The President has said that the U. S. will consider a further round of mandatory emissions reductions, but has also insisted that the negotiations include the 15 countries with the highest emissions.

This is within the spirit of Byrd-Hagel because any agreement resulting from these negotiations would include China, India, and Brazil, as well as Britain and Germany. The question is why countries like China would ever agree to put such limits on their economic growth just because the EU, Japan, and the U. S. agreed to do so, or even why the U.S. would agree to do this. Moreover, international treaties do not have the same status in other countries as in the U. S. The EU, Canada, and Japan are failing to meet their Kyoto targets even though they ratified a UN treaty. That could not happen in this country. If the federal government was failing to enforce Kyoto, citizens could file suit in federal court to order the government to meet the targets. A federal judge would oversee our compliance.

The proviso to do no significant economic harm is a much higher hurdle to jump. President Bush recognized this when he nixed Kyoto and instead set voluntary targets for U. S. industry. The Bush administration also helped organize the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, which takes no interest in setting mandatory targets. Instead, its purpose is to foster development and deployment of new technologies that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

As for the Congress, there is now strong momentum to pass cap-and-trade legislation unilaterally. Many members of Congress now support measures that would force Americans to lower their use of hydrocarbon energy whether other countries are requiring similar cuts or not. That is, the goal of slowing and stopping global warming has been supplanted by energy rationing as an end in itself. This is directly contrary to Byrd-Hagel and is utter foolishness. The issue of the costs of cutting emissions has been swept under the rug by many members of Congress for years.

However, recently a glimmer of Byrd-Hagel sanity has been seen in Congress. Representative John Dingell, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, announced that he will introduce a bill to put a tax on hydrocarbon energy use. He explained that his purpose will be to show the American people what the true costs of global warming policies are and thereby to show the Congress that most Americans will not support such policies once they know what the costs are. Dingell’s education lesson should be taken up seriously by other responsible members of Congress (of whom there are still some) and by the Bush administration. They should undertake a thorough study of the measures that would be required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially and of the resulting costs.

This would not only comply with Byrd-Hagel, it would also force the Congress to confront the underlying economic realities. Global warming policies can be designed that will not do significant economic harm to the economy. Policies can also be designed that will reduce emissions significantly. No one has yet figured out what policies can accomplish both those goals.