The surprise announcement this week that Europe had committed itself to putting a lid on emissions of the global warming gas carbon dioxide completes the diplomatic isolation of the United States on greenhouse policy.
Between them, the European Community and the European Free Trade Association represent all 17 countries of Western Europe (except Malta). Their decision means that members will aim to hold their emissions of carbon dioxide in the year 2000 to the same level as in 1990, but does not interfere with more ambitious targets set by Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and others, which call for cuts ranging up to 25 percent.
In the Pacific, New Zealand also plans a 25 percent CO2 cut. Within the past few weeks Australia (which, like the United States, is large, thinly populated and heavily reliant on coal), set a goal of a 20 percent cut, and Japan abandoned its prior support for the U.S. position. Japan's goal holds per-capita emissions steady, but allows for expected population growth.
Canada also plans to stabilize its emissions. This leaves the United States as the only developed country arguing that it is too soon to begin slowing these emissions. In stark contrast to the others, its yearly CO2 outputs will likely grow by about 15 percent by 2000, unless policies change.
The split between the United States and the rest of the developed world has nothing to do with science. The just-completed World Climate Conference issued another in a long string of international consensus documents on the scientific aspects of greenhouse warming. American scientists have played the leading role in all of them.
Rather, it lies in the chancy leap from science to policy. In this disorienting twilight zone, it is revealed that the best scientists, being mortal, rely on hunch and intuition like the rest of us, and policy makers effortlessly cloak their ideological, political or personal predilections in the folds of scientific uncertainty.
Administration officials are more than a little patronizing in their dismissal of other countries' greenhouse control targets. The goals, they say, are unsupported by serious analysis showing how they will be achieved and at what cost. On alternate days of the week they say the goals are cheap rhetoric and that these countries are actually secretly relying on the United States to hold the line and save them from themselves. All of these apparently grown-up countries, in this view, either don't know what they're talking about or don't believe what they are saying.
But how accurate the studies are -- whether Germany ultimately cuts its emissions by 25 percent or half of that -- is not what matters. The goals are meaningful for precisely the reason the administration opposes them: they shape policy, they commit a government to try.
Nor can domestic political pressure explain why so many countries would adopt phony goals. Many of these countries harbor vocal and growing Green parties, but in no case is greenhouse warming such a priority public issue as to drive governments to adopt challenging policies they don't believe in. Quite the contrary, governments are ahead of public opinion on this issue.
Why, then, would governments choose -- as the administration sees it -- self-inflicted economic wounds? Here is the nub. They don't share the United States' assessment that there will be a high economic cost. Many, including Japan, Germany and the Netherlands, are saying that they expect a net profit from energy efficiency gains and through eventual market dominance of innovative high-efficiency technologies and alternative energy sources. Interestingly, the most ambitious CO2 targets have been adopted by countries that are already among the most energy efficient (measured either by energy use per person or per dollar of GNP). This would not be the first time those who are first to explore a technological frontier are the first to see its full potential.
With a government hamstrung between two political parties, each of them internally divided, and a public fearful of recession and scornful of its government, the United States right now is poorly equipped to contemplate, much less embrace, change. Wholesale cuts in CO2 emissions may well yield net economic benefits, but every step in that direction will hurt someone. When whale oil gave way to kerosene, the economy saw the change as a big plus. Not so the whaling industry. In modern terms, those who could be hurt are powerful industries with friends at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
But the real key to the U.S. position is White House Chief of Staff John Sununu. He has a simple version of the climate models that run on supercomputers at places like the National Center for Atmospheric Research set up in his office, as if in his spare time he could uncover some flaw in the scientists' reasoning. His fierce personal interest and opposition to dealing with the energy-related greenhouse gases has cleared the field of potential opposing voices in the Cabinet. Secretary of State James Baker has gone so far as to have a formal legal recusal drafted, removing himself from the debate on the grounds it could affect his oil and gas holdings. ( Whereas managing the Mideast crisis does not?)
Being a minority of one does not make the U.S. position wrong. But, given the lineup of governments taking the opposite view, it should give us pause. There's reason to be questioning not their analysis but our own.