Seizing the High Ground: Cautionary Notes on the Rhetoric of Climate Change Policy

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On July 25, 1997, the U.S. Senate passed Senate Resolution 98 by a vote of 95 to zero. S. Res. 98 stipulates that the United States should not sign any agreement at the Kyoto conference which would exempt developing countries from mandatory emissions reductions or which would seriously harm the U.S. economy. A shot fired across the bow, the resolution complicates Bill Clinton’s tasks in negotiating and selling the Kyoto protocol.

In many ways, S. Res. 98 is a remarkable achievement. The resolution is thoroughly bipartisan and enjoys the solid backing of business, labor, and agriculture interests. The Senate approved it in time to influence U.S. negotiators before the August meeting in Bonn. Passed by an uncontested majority, it makes a strong statement that the Senate will not ratify any agreement that would wreck the U.S. economy for no environmental benefit. The resolution is a consensus document, and that is its strength. Only a consensus document could attract such broad support or win passage in such short order.

But certain caveats are in order. Consensus building across ideological lines can be a wonderful thing – when it advances your ultimate objectives. But consensus politics also has its risks, such as producing ideological timidity in your own troops and blurring, rather than clarifying, what is really at stake for the American people.

At first glance, S. Res. 98 may seem to be a clever means of sinking the Kyoto agreement. 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. To demand that all countries curb their emissions makes sense only if (a) global warming is a serious and imminent threat and (b) 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. Indeed, S. Res. 98 affirms the “need for global action on climate change.”

Worse, by making the developing country exemption the chief sticking point, opponents come perilously close to 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 opponents on the opposite side of the moral universe from Mother Teresa. It’s not an advantageous place to be.

As for the stipulation that U.S. negotiators not sign any agreement which would seriously harm our economy, this is 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 the of climate change debate (i.e., money versus lives, 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. Environmentalists take great pains to hide this fact; Kyoto opponents have yet to expose and exploit it.

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 both natural and 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 UN, and the greenhouse lobby.