Beyond Kyoto

global warming climate change kyoto greenhouse gas carbon dioxide emissions
This column was written by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last January, British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that one of his top priorities as chairman of the Group of Eight industrialized countries would be to rally the G8 to action on global warming. Unspoken in that announcement, but obvious to all, was Blair's intention to target President George W. Bush, who in 2001 withdrew the United States from the Kyoto Protocol regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

As world leaders convened last July, there was much anticipation over what kind of agreement the G8 would reach. By the end of the summit, it was clear that Blair's hopes had been dashed. The White House succeeded in so watering down the G8's communiqué on global warming that it ended up being weaker than the statement President Bush's father had signed 13 years before.

Then, in August, the White House announced its alternative to the Kyoto Protocol: the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate. A Downing Street official characterized the agreement — secretly negotiated by the United States, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Australia — as "a slap in the face" designed to undermine Kyoto.

But rather than continuing to duke it out publicly with Bush, Blair changed his tune. In late September the prime minister said that he hoped the nations of the world would "not negotiate international treaties" in the future — a 180-degree change of rhetoric in less than 60 days.

For environmentalists and others, the episode was evidence of Blair's weakness and Bush's isolationism. As with his support for the invasion of Iraq, Blair had once again failed in his attempts to finesse the Bush administration. Bush, for his part, had once again demonstrated a brazen disregard for multilateral action, the international community, and the future of the planet.

But the stalemate over addressing global warming highlights the failure of neither Blair nor Bush but rather of environmentalism and the politics of limits. Global warming did not have to be, a priori, an "environmental" issue. It was made so by environmentalists who understood global warming originally not so much as an impending global crisis that needed to be addressed by any means necessary but rather as a powerful new argument for restricting activities (e.g., driving cars and burning fossil fuels) that they already wanted to restrict. As such, the solutions to global warming were, from the very start, conceived of as limitations and restrictions — the approach that lies at the heart of the Kyoto Protocol and virtually every other effort to address global warming.