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David Ignatius

A Climate of Disdain

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, February 9, 2005; Page A23

Next week will mark an unlikely milestone in modern history: The Kyoto Protocol on global climate change will take effect a week from today, without U.S. participation. A global policy train will be leaving the station, in other words, without the United States even being on board, let alone serving as conductor.

All 25 nations of the European Union have ratified the Kyoto accord, and they have created an innovative system for trading rights to emit the carbon dioxide "greenhouse gases" that are thought to be responsible for global warming. High-emissions Britain could purchase allocations from low-emissions Norway, for example. This "carbon trading" system will make it easier for the E.U. as a whole to meet the Kyoto target of reducing emissions from 2008 onward to 8 percent below 1990 levels. It will also encourage new investment in Eastern Europe to replace aging, polluting factories there.

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The decisive signatory of this 21st-century treaty, as it happened, was sleepy, corrupt Mother Russia. The Russian parliament's decision to ratify Kyoto last October guaranteed that the treaty would take effect, despite the Bush administration's decision in 2001 to withdraw from it. More than 140 nations have ratified the agreement.

Kyoto is probably the best example of the differing trajectories of the Bush administration and most of its allies and trading partners. The administration decided to walk away from the treaty during its first months in office, arguing that the Kyoto requirement that the United States cut greenhouse emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels would cost 5 million jobs and billions of dollars.

Some of the administration's criticisms were valid -- especially its argument that the treaty was flawed because it didn't include limits for developing nations such as China. But by disdaining Kyoto, the administration opted out of a process that might have produced a better agreement. Perhaps the administration assumed that Kyoto would wither and die without U.S. support; if so, it was wrong.

The Bush administration's official position is that the climate change issue is complicated and needs more study. Yet many of the administration's own scientists seem convinced that the problem is real and growing. The Environmental Protection Agency endorses the finding by the National Academy of Sciences that the Earth's surface temperature has risen about 1 degree Fahrenheit in the past century.

The EPA's Web site offers this blood-curdling warning: "Rising global temperatures are expected to raise sea level, and change precipitation and other local climate conditions. Changing regional climate could alter forests, crop yields, and water supplies. . . . Deserts may expand into existing rangelands, and features of some of our National Parks may be permanently altered." And yet the administration does little except study the data.

The global figure taking the lead on climate change is none other than George Bush's best foreign friend, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In a speech last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he seemed to be talking directly to the Bush administration: "It would be true to say the evidence is still disputed," Blair said. "It would be wrong to say that the evidence of danger is not clearly and persuasively advocated by a very large number of entirely independent and compelling voices. They are the majority. The majority is not always right, but they deserve to be listened to."

Blair is proving as principled and stubborn on climate change as he has been on Iraq -- which will put pressure on Bush. The prime minister will host the Group of Eight summit this July in Gleneagles, Scotland, and he seems determined to make progress there on climate change. Bush surely realizes he owes Blair one, and the G-8 summit could provide an opportunity for the administration to get off the fence.

As the global wagon train begins to move, it will pull the United States along, regardless of what Bush decides. Two pillars of the Republican counter-administration, Sens. John McCain and Chuck Hagel, are set to introduce legislation next week to deal with climate change. Meanwhile, environmentalists in California are pushing to implement a 2002 law that would require reduced emissions of carbon dioxide for autos there; if it passes, similar laws may be introduced in other big states. At some point, U.S. auto companies may insist on uniform federal standards.

Kyoto isn't the last word on climate change. It's a flawed treaty, and it needs amendment. But it shows that the political and economic dimensions of globalization are becoming intertwined. Kyoto has more than 140 nations on board; that's a critical mass that will require the world's major companies to adapt to a global market in emissions trading. America can drag its feet on climate change, but it turns out that it can't stop the rest of the world from taking action.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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