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Eyes Wide Shut on Global Warming

The Kyoto Treaty on controlling climate change was, as Harvard professor Rob Stavins puts it, “too little, too fast.” On one hand, because it covered only those countries projected to emit roughly half of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions by mid-century, it was not an effective long-run safeguard against the dangers of global warming. On the other hand, because it required significant and expensive short-run cuts in emissions by industrial countries, it threatened to impose large immediate costs on the American, European, and Japanese economies. In short, the Kyoto agreement meant lots of short-term pain for little long-run gain.

The European Union and American economists in the Clinton administration argued for passage of the Kyoto Treaty only by creating models for something that wasn’t the Kyoto Treaty. They projected that developing countries would enter the Kyoto framework at some point, and would trade their rights to emit CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the United States and Europe in return for development aid.

But, all these years later, I have yet to meet anyone who knows what they are talking about who is prepared to defend Kyoto as a substantive global public policy. ”It was a way of getting the ball rolling,” on climate change, say some. ”It was a way of waking up the world to the seriousness of the problem,” say others.

Under neither of these interpretations can those who negotiated and signed the Kyoto Treaty be said to have served the world well. Of course, the world has been served a lot worse since. President George W. Bush sided with his vice president, Dick Cheney, in denying that a global-warming problem even exists (his treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, and his administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Whitman, disagreed). This has probably cost the world a decade of wasted time in developing a policy to deal with the problem, particularly given that intentional inaction is likely to continue until Bush’s term is finished.