Old habits die hard, especially when it comes to US foreign policy. On November 10 George W. Bush appeared before the United Nations General Assembly and, in a speech praised by the New York Times for its "plain-spoken eloquence," admonished his audience that the responsibility to fight terrorism is "binding on every nation with a place in this chamber." Bush apparently felt no need to practice what he preached about international responsibilities, though. On the same day–indeed, at the very moment–he was lecturing UN members, his own Administration was shunning negotiations in Marrakech, Morocco, to finalize the Kyoto accord on global warming.
"How long can the Administration turn its back on issues the rest of the world cares about–from global warming to trade in small arms–and expect broad support on issues like the war on terrorism?" asked Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. Bush's double standard is all the more grating, considering that the United States is the leading source of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
Like terrorism, global warming is an issue in which every nation has a stake. Already the Earth's glaciers are melting and catastrophic storms are becoming more severe and more frequent–this, after a mere 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperatures over the past century. Scientists expect four to eleven degrees of additional warming by 2100, bringing more violent weather, flooded coastlines and social havoc. New research released in Marrakech by the UN Environmental Program warns that global crop yields could fall 30 percent over the twenty-first century.
The Kyoto accord addresses this danger by ordering industrial nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 5.2 percent by 2012, compared with 1990 levels–a very modest target, considering that scientists say global emissions must eventually be cut 60 percent. Last summer in Bonn, 178 nations signed the accord; the meeting in Marrakech, where US officials observed but did not participate, hammered out rules for implementation. "Other countries have chosen their path, and our answer is still no," said a Bush Administration official.
Will Marrakech make much difference? The good news is that the world has put in place a binding framework requiring greenhouse gas reductions, and this framework will likely become law despite the US boycott. To come into force, the accord must be ratified by fifty-five countries, including a group responsible for at least 55 percent of the industrial world's emissions. Forty smaller nations have already ratified it, but with the United States holding out, the 55 percent standard can be reached only if the European Union, Russia and Japan all ratify. The EU has long been on board, and in Marrakech the Russians said they were finally satisfied. Japan's deputy chief cabinet secretary is pushing for a ratification vote in January, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has signaled his support. So Kyoto could become law as early as next spring (although the United States, because it didn't sign, won't be bound by it). A further bright spot: Delegates at Marrakech authorized $410 million a year by 2005 for a "clean development mechanism" to subsidize the shift from carbon-based fuels in poor countries.
The bad news is that the Kyoto accord got so watered down in Marrakech that it may have very little practical effect during the next ten years, when progress is most needed. The original accord relied heavily on emissions trading, a dubious mechanism that allows countries whose emissions are less than the maximum permitted, like Russia, to sell their excess to countries that are over their quota, like Japan. Now this loophole has been not only codified but expanded. The chief culprit is Russia, which has 120 million tons of emissions to trade and which also demanded twice as much credit as previously agreed on for the role its vast forests can play in absorbing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Meanwhile, two studies published in Nature this past July suggest that forests are not nearly as effective in neutralizing emissions as was thought.
Some environmentalists argue that these loopholes can be fixed later, that the emissions targets will be gradually tightened and eventually produce meaningful effects. And it's true that since carbon will now have a price in the marketplace, thanks to emissions trading, corporations, governments and individuals may make better choices about the products they produce and consume. US firms might even obey the accord, despite Washington's stance, in order not to be left behind by foreign competitors. But wouldn't it be easier if the United States simply showed as much commitment to the battle against global warming as it demands from everyone else in the battle against terrorism?