The Week That Was
October 5-11, 1998

In the countdown to the UN global warming summit (COP-4) in Buenos Aires, slated to begin early next month, the $64 question is: What has happened to the media coverage? Last year's Kyoto conference was promoted in the newspapers for weeks. Global warming, we were told, would be the end of life as we know it. Hammering out a solution in Kyoto was imperative. Would Al Gore attend? Would he speak? The gush went on and on.

Buenos Aires, on the other hand, at least to Americans, doesn't seem to exist. Mr. Clinton's peccadillos have been sucking up much of Washington's media hot air, of course (posing as a martyr, Clinton now places his fate in the hands of God); the U.S. stockmarket has been up and down, mostly down; and last week the U.S. and Russian governments were making everyone nervous with "line in the sand" rumblings over Kosovo. Still, that hardly explains the overwhelming lack of enthusiasm for pursuing what was hailed in Kyoto as a "historic" agreement.

Is this the fallout from a year of economic number-crunching? Did Washington finally come to the realization that the Kyoto Protocol from the get-go was a bureaucratic scheme that would be incredibly costly, a nightmare to enforce, and ineffective in reducing greenhouse gases to boot?

The best endorsement Clinton Administration officials can now muster is that the agreement is flawed but nevertheless "an important first step." But a "first step" to what is becoming increasingly clear. After touting its implementation as a move that would create U.S. jobs and boost the U.S. economy, the White House recently admitted that jobs would indeed be lost (2.4 million in energy-intensive industries, by Senate estimates), but hinted that it would provide funding to help workers make the transition (from miners and assembly-line workers to government paper-pushers and environmental lawyers, apparently).

A study released last week by the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA) again contradicts Mr. Clinton's earlier claims that combatting global warming would be pain-free. The EIA says reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 31 percent by the year 2010--7 percent below 1990 levels, the Kyoto target--would require a 53 percent hike in gasoline prices, a near-doubling of electricity costs, and a pollution tax imposed on greenhouse gas emissions from cars and factories that would lead to disproportionately higher price hikes for coal. With energy costs soaring across the board, Americans--poorer Americans particularly--would thus be coerced into reducing their energy use by 17 percent. (Those who lose their jobs, of course, could be counted on to reduce it even more.) The U.S. gross national product would drop by 4.1 percent.

Government global warming promoters and their apologists at the Washington Post and New York Times were quick to point out that the EIA study did not factor in the supposed benefits of a carbon-trading scheme, which they claim could reduce costs by as much as half. But, in fairness, neither do the various cost-benefit analyses factor in the possible benefits from a warming of the climate, which would render costs even less acceptable.

All of the cost-benefit analyses assume only disbenefits from warmer temperatures. But we know that the El Nino-driven warmth of this past year saved tens of millions of dollars in heating costs, and was reportedly a factor in the drop in oil prices. What about the cold weather clothing and supplies that became unnecessary? What about the weather-related fatalities that DID NOT occur--deaths from pneumonia, heart attacks from shoveling snow, etc?

Carbon trading was agreed to at Kyoto, but the sticky details were left to be resolved in Buenos Aires, along with getting commitments from developing countries to accept limits on their greenhouse gas emissions at some point in the future. Given the vagueness of such proposals, it is virtually impossible to assess what, if any, impact they will have.

Or at least that's what the U.S. Congress concluded last week in zeroing out from the EPA funding bill any money aimed at implementing the Kyoto Protocol without Senate ratification. President Clinton has threatened to veto the measure because of the strong anti-Kyoto language, but most on the Hill doubt that will happen, in part because the bill was unfortunately sweetened with an overall increase in money for EPA Administrator Carol Browner to play with in other areas.

Efforts to "backdoor" Kyoto policies haven't stopped, however. Green activists are urging support for Clinton's September 14 Executive Order forcing federal procurement officials to buy "environmentally preferable products and services," which the Greens and many Administration officials interpret as including electric power generated by solar, wind, and other so-called renewable energy sources. The feds purchase several billion dollars worth of electricity annually.

After decades of subsidizing renewables, solar and wind power are still not feasible on a large scale and still not market competitive. Solar and wind power companies are, however, on the verge of losing their government handouts, hence the push by Green groups for another federal giveaway. In an October 7 letter to the Clinton Administration, the Greens (Natural Resources Defense Council, Union of Concerned Scientists, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, and the Center for Resource Solutions) said that federal "green" power purchases "could create an important downpayment on reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions." They urge "leadership," which is Greenspeak for "spare no expense since the taxpayers are footing the bill." Not mentioned is that nuclear and hydroelectric power would make a more realistic "downpayment" and on a grander scale.

Meanwhile, the government of Argentina, which is hosting the UN summit, is showing some interesting philosophical splits. The Argentine government has so far been following Clinton's lead on the Climate Treaty. Here in Washington, D.C., the Argentine ambassador has even been touting Mr. Clinton as a "great leader." (We assume that's the same Argentine gold standard that produced Juan Peron and a series of military dictators.)

But down in Buenos Aires, Raul Estrada, a senior official with the Foreign Ministry and the lynchpin at Kyoto, is reluctant to cheer. Asked to brief the U.S. Mission to COP-4, Estrada told them frankly that he didn't think much would come out of the Buenos Aires summit. He told them he doubted that the various mechanisms to prevent climate change, proposed in Kyoto, would be approved or that such mechanisms would work in any case. Also, the refusal by China and India to accept either mandatory or voluntary caps on emissions was "not fair," he said, as was the emphasis in countries like Costa Rica and Brazil on forests and other carbon "sinks" rather than on changing technologies and reducing emissions directly.

Perhaps because of his failure to tell delegates what they wanted to hear, Mr. Estrada recently learned that he and his Foreign Ministry will have no role in the UN summit; in fact, he is being sent out of the country for the two-week duration of the meeting. Heading the Argentine delegation will be another ministry, the Natural Resources Secretariat. Ah, trouble in paradise.

More next week...

TW2 is compiled by SEPP Research Associate Candace Crandall

Go to the Week That Was Index