Take Out the Garbage

Glaciers are disappearing; Antarctic ice shelves are collapsing; the Greenland ice cap is eroding; the Arctic winter has grown shorter; and polar sea ice is thinner. Penguins are deprived of nesting areas, and polar bears are losing breeding grounds. Across the Northern Hemisphere, flora and fauna are migrating steadily northward. Global warming is no longer a matter of forecasts generated by computers. It is more and more a confirmed fact. The world’s climate is changing and at a faster pace than climatologists had projected.

After long delay, the Kyoto Protocols have come into effect; but the United States, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, remains outside the treaty. President Bush calls only for voluntary reductions in emissions. According to the Pew Center for Global Climate Change, however, "More than a decade of experience with these programs shows that while they have at times inspired significant action on the part of individual companies, these measures have not succeeded in reducing, or even stabilizing, total U.S. emissions."


Kyoto attempts to reduce greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2012. It would have placed the greatest demands on the United States, because this nation has been and remains the largest emitter. Republicans and Democrats in successive congresses and the current administration have opposed Kyoto, using the excuse that third world giants like China, India and Brazil are unfairly exempt from reduction targets in the first phase of the treaty’s implementation.

The exemptions given to third world countries made sense in 1997, when the treaty was negotiated, and they continue to be reasonable today as a temporary measure to allow poor countries to develop. Americans produce, on average, six times the pollution of their Indian counterparts. China, moreover, has brought about reductions in air pollution even as its economy has grown at a record pace. And as the richest country in the world, the United States can afford to cut pollution. There is no inequity in the Kyoto Protocols. The gross inequity is in the U.S. failure to agree to do its share in reducing greenhouse gases. As the late Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls used to say, "Adults take out their own garbage."

A favored but halfhearted method for compliance is available through a provision in the protocols for developed economies to trade carbon, that is carbon dioxide emissions, with less-polluting, developing economies. This will lead to a reduction in the total amount of greenhouse gases worldwide. Accordingly, carbon trading allows industries in developed countries to offset their emissions of carbon dioxide by investing in reforestation and clean energy projects in developing countries. In a model compact with Costa Rica, the United States agreed to invest in reforestation in that Central American country and thereby gain credit for improvements in Costa Rica’s air quality. By such arrangements, U.S. industries can put off reducing their own greenhouse gas pollution to a future date.

Complex trading programs have already emerged. Economists tout them as win-win arrangements by which overall targets are met more cheaply. Despite its short-term usefulness, however, carbon trading is flawed. First, trading allows polluters to buy their way out of correcting their own bad behavior, like scofflaws paying off a judge to avoid paying back tickets. Trading works around the problem rather than correcting its basic causes. Second, delay makes any future adjustment all the more difficult to attain, both economically and politically. Third, it prevents speeding up the pace of reduction required to make a real difference in halting climate change. For even with Kyoto’s limits, global temperatures are expected to continue to rise steeply. More decisive action is needed. To decelerate global warming and avert catastrophic alterations in the world’s climate, there needs to be greater technological innovation, lifestyle changes and government regulation.

Government regulation can work hand in hand with the market. Government standards, for example, have made possible a new industry in green, or environmentally friendly, building. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed an executive order mandating green buildings in state construction projects, creating a market worth tens of billions of dollars. The popularity of the Toyota Prius, a hybrid (gas/electric) auto, likewise shows how technological innovation, stimulated by regulation, can provide less polluting options for consumers. But markets alone will not be the solution. As the California example shows, legislation and regulation can play an indispensable role. It is time for both Congress and the White House to act as adults and take out the garbage.

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