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The Rio Pact: a Breach of Promise

The only way to slow climate change is to use less fuel, but the Clinton administration refuses to bite the bullet.

June 22, 1997|BILL McKIBBEN | Bill McKibben is the author of "The End of Nature" (Doubleday, 1990) and "Hope, Human and Wild" (Little, Brown, 1995). He lives in Johnsburg, N.Y

When world leaders meet in New York this week to review global environmental efforts, President Clinton will have some tough explaining to do. That's because his administration made it official last month: It has completely broken the most important international agreement of the decade.

In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio, President Bush joined other leaders in pledging to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2000. A few months later, on his first Earth Day in office, President Clinton repeated the promise; to do otherwise, he said, would be to risk disastrous global warming.

But as the State Department admitted a few weeks ago in a draft report on our progress, we will miss the target, and by a mile. By 2000, the report confessed, we'll be spewing out 13% more greenhouse gas than in 1990. The feisty environmental group Ozone Action calculates that our cars, houses and utilities will be belching at least 15% more carbon dioxide, the chief cause of global warming. It's as if we'd promised the Russians we'd stop building nuclear weapons and instead added several thousand--and it's every bit as dangerous, since that carbon dioxide is detonating in the atmosphere as we speak, driving up the planet's temperature.

There's perhaps no international commitment we've ever broken so thoroughly--and we're the same nation that goes into an indignant huff when China pirates "Return of the Jedi" and Adobe Photoshop. As our trade representative in the intellectual property dispute told Beijing, "When other countries do not live up to their obligations, we will take action."

So where's our shame about ignoring this agreement? Not at the White House. Since his freshman-year attempt at a BTU energy tax, the president has done nothing that might encourage any of us to think twice about burning fossil fuel. When the gas price spiked slightly upward last summer, he even proposed opening the strategic petroleum reserve to keep the cost of driving so low that every American could pilot a Ford Explorer.

Now, in international negotiations that will culminate this December in Kyoto, America's representatives stall and dither. They're unwilling to commit to even the modest reductions proposed by the Europeans, and they insist on delaying the implementation of even those modest steps until after 2010. In other words, having wasted the 1990s with a series of voluntary programs that led to a 15% increase in carbon emissions, the administration now proposes to waste the next decade too.

Meanwhile, the Earth is changing all around us. When Bush and Clinton made their pledges five years ago, global warming was still a topic of scientific dispute. Now, the world's climatologists say with near unanimity that the planet is heating up and we are the cause. In the last few months, a spate of studies has shown that spring weather is arriving a week earlier across the northern hemisphere, that severe storms have increased by 20%, that the freezing level in the atmosphere is steadily climbing.

The administration blames the decade's quick economic growth for our growth in energy use, and it's true that if our economy had collapsed like the former Soviet Union's, we'd probably be spewing less carbon dioxide. But if we'd taken even a small fraction of our new wealth and used it to subsidize the transition away from fossil fuels, we'd be spewing less.

We have no spare decades left. And we have no more magic solutions. Voluntary controls didn't do the trick. The advent of the service economy hasn't dramatically cut consumption--not only are there all those modems and printers, but as Department of Energy economist Arthur Rypinski points out, "even in the information age it gets cold in the winter and hot in the summer."

The only way to slow climate change is to use less fuel, and the only way to do that is make coal and oil expensive. And the only way to do that is for our political leaders take some risks. In the meantime, the rest of the world might consider consulting with the Cherokee and the Sioux about whether it's worth signing treaties with the U.S. government.

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