The Kyoto protocol on climate change came into effect on February 16, when it was ratified by more than 140 countries, including the 34 most industrialised nations. But the US, the world’s worst polluter, has refused to sign it, and developing countries, including China, the next biggest polluter, and India and Brazil, both significant contributors to today’s worst environmental problem, are exempt. Russia, however, has ratified it (for political reasons, rather than because of any strong commitment to the environment), enabling the protocol to become legally binding on its signatories. The UN-brokered treaty requires developed countries to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, which produce the “greenhouse gases” (mainly carbon dioxide) that are causing climate change. Although the treaty has loopholes that could enable some countries to avoid implementing the required reductions fully, the mere fact that such a protocol has been ratified by so many states might be considered a reasonable beginning, though by itself it is certainly nothing to celebrate.
The UN, which has had nothing to celebrate recently, insists that the adoption of the treaty is a great cause for celebration, and dismisses the reservations of environmental groups and scientists. “I am happy that all these pessimists have been proved wrong,” says Claus Topfer, a UN under-secretary. “We have proved that in this globalised world there is also the chance of globalised action.” However, the undersecretary has not bothered to deal with the specific objections raised by those whom he calls pessimists, and it is not surprising that his remarks have been generally ignored. His optimism would have been justified in 1997, when 84 countries first adopted the draft protocol; even the US had put its signature to it then, only to withdraw its support later.
President George W. Bush withdrew American support for the Kyoto protocol in March 2001, claiming that it would be too damaging to the US’s economy and would cost 5 million jobs. He also claimed that the agreement was based on unreliable science, and that it unfairly excluded “developing countries” such as China, India and Brazil, which together comprise about a third of the world’s population. Though the US originally put its signature to the proposals, they were opposed so strongly by the US Senate that the protocol was never submitted for ratification by president Bill Clinton.
But now that Bush has refused to ratify the protocol and is out to fight it, the US government is trying to diffuse international reactions to his highly irresponsible decision by claiming that it is making a serious commitment to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, despite rejecting the Kyoto protocol itself. Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman, has said that despite the withdrawal from Kyoto the US government has initiated measures to address global warming, including investment in hydrogen fuel-cell technology, tax-incentives for renewable energy, the raising of fuel-economy standards, and a plan for zero-emission by coal-fired power-plants.
Stressing the government’s alleged dual commitment to the growth of the US economy and to the reduction of emissions at the same time, McClellan said: “Under this administration we have made an unprecedented commitment to reduce the growth of greenhouse gas emissions in a way that continues to grow our economy.” But environmentalists immediately rejected the US government’s claims, arguing that the recently introduced policies would not prevent the continued increase in emissions, and that they are “little more than fig-leaves”.
One of the critics of the claim is Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defence Council, who spoke out strongly on the day they were announced. He said: “The bottom line is that emissions are going up and, with the current Bush administration policies, they are going to continue going up. It is misleading for them to claim they are seriously committed to [preventing or minimising] global warming.” Others made the point that the money the government is spending on this matter goes to finance research into whether there is in fact any real global warming: a redundant exercise, because there is a worldwide consensus on this issue. According to Jessica Coven of Greenpeace, “it is just smoke and mirrors.” Explaining her comment, she added: “They say they are spending billions of dollars but much of that money is for research into whether global warming exists. The Bush administration should be spending... billions on solutions that are available now – solar and wind [power]... If there was the political will, the US could reduce its emissions.”
It is worth paying close attention to the Bush administration’s highly dangerous “greenhouse manoeuvring”, not only because the US is the biggest polluter and determined to remain so, but also because other industrialised countries, including those that are ratifying the Kyoto treaty, will be tempted to take a leaf from its book. Oddly, it looks as if the treaty itself is inviting them to do so, by providing a loophole that they can exploit, and almost certainly will. The treaty has a clause that allows industrialised countries to buy “development credits” by giving funds to non-developed nations to reduce the latters’ emissions instead. Not surprisingly, aid and environmental groups have criticised this severely as a means by which industrialised countries can avoid reducing their own emissions of carbon dioxide and other industrial byproducts.
But it is not only the intervention of aid and environmental groups that should prompt the world’s people to take action against the polluters and degraders of humanity’s physical environment. Since the ratification of the protocol various scientific reports, based on extended research, have been issued that cover most aspects of global warming. One recent report has established the first “unequivocal link between man-made greenhouse gases and a dramatic heating of the Earth’s oceans.” The researchers have discovered what they describe as a “stunning correlation” between a rise in ocean temperatures during the past 40 years and pollution of the atmosphere. This means that global warming is definitely not caused by natural factors, as those opposed to the Kyoto protocol claim.
Moreover, and highly unfairly, this discovery means that countries close to the world’s oceans, most of them non-polluters and far from industrialised, are the likeliest victims of any catastrophe that comes about as a result of global warming. This is why the non-industrialised countries should pool their resources to fight this hardly foreseen economic and environmental war by rich nations against them. Perhaps they should even accept the bribery available to them through the loophole in the Kyoto protocol, and then use these funds to improve their own situation in the impending climate crisis.