No Quarter for Kyoto

Most policy disputes are first and foremost rhetorical battles for the moral high ground. Is affirmative action unfair racial preference or justice to minorities? Is compensation for regulatory takings "paying polluters not to pollute" or protecting landowners’ rights? In political controversies, the battle determining whose premises frame the debate and define its terms is the decisive battle. President Clinton understands this well, which is why his favorite fighting words are "our values" and "our children."

In the climate change debate, opponents of the Kyoto protocol (a multilateral agreement which would force countries to reduce their fossil fuel emissions) are unwittingly ceding the high ground to Clinton and the greenhouse lobby. Opponents have rallied around Senate Resolution 98. The resolution stipulates that the U.S. should not sign any agreement at the Kyoto conference which would exempt developing countries from mandatory emissions reductions or which would seriously harm our economy.

At first glance, this tack seems downright clever. Developing countries cannot afford the stringent emissions controls the Kyoto protocol would establish for the U.S. and other OECD countries. So if we can just make U.S. ratification contingent on developing country participation, we can kill the agreement and put the onus on China, India, or Mexico.

But this approach may be too clever by half. What if developing countries agree to limit their emissions, only over a longer time period and with heaps of foreign aid to sweeten the deal? Any such compromise could rob opponents of their stated grounds for rejecting the treaty.

More importantly, to demand that all countries curb their emissions makes sense only if global warming is a serious and imminent threat and concerted action by the world’s governments is the appropriate response. Whether they realize it or not, opponents are conceding the main points at issue.

Worse, by making the developing country exemption the chief sticking point, opponents are in effect saying that the U.S. should not ratify a treaty needed to save the planet unless the world’s poorest countries agree to commit economic suicide. This posture puts Kyoto foes on the opposite side of the moral universe from Mother Teresa. It’s not an advantageous place to be.

As for the stipulation that the treaty not harm our economy, this is just a variant of the jobs and competitiveness arguments that have consistently failed to halt the growth of environmental regulation. Unless connected to broader humanitarian concerns, such arguments do not challenge, and could even reinforce, the environmentalists’ preferred framing of the issue (i.e., business versus the planet). Economic assessments can be useful, but only if advanced in the context of "wealthier is healthier, richer is safer" arguments emphasizing the connection between livelihoods, living standards, and lives.

The irony of the whole debate is that it is the greenhouse lobby that is pushing anti-growth policies inimical to the poor. Opponents have yet to expose and exploit that fact. To win, opponents must be prepared to argue that the climate treaty is an intrinsically bad idea (rather than the flawed execution of a good idea). Specifically, they will have to: denounce the whole scheme as a scam – a power grab based on deception and fear; explain why an energy-starved world will be poorer in all the essential supports of human life; and champion a resilience strategy (the elimination of political impediments to economic growth and technological innovation) as the best long-term protection from natural or man-made disasters.

This is a tall order. Advancing an alternative moral vision is never an easy task. But that is what it will take to defeat Clinton, the U.N., and the greenhouse lobby.