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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Global Warming Commentary

Air Date: Week of

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Commentator Robert Stavins, who directs the Environment and Natural Resources Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, offers a plan he believes could help the US take the lead in global climate change negotiations.


CURWOOD: And now, a couple of comments on the issue. First, we turn to Harvard Professor Robert Stavins. He's advised the Clinton administration, as well as both Bush administrations, on environmental policy. He says there's still an opportunity for the U.S. to take the lead on climate change.

STAVINS: President Bush forcefully rejected the Kyoto Protocol before he had a substitute ready and without first consulting with our major international partners. In retrospect, that was short-sighted and confused. But contrary to appearances, the President's rejection of Kyoto need not signal the death knell for U.S. involvement in climate change negotiations. In fact, the President's actions may actually provide an opportunity for the United States to begin working seriously with other nations on a truly credible long-term strategy.

There's no silver bullet, but three key elements should be part of the basic architecture of the administration's international proposal. First, all nations should be involved, if an agreement is to be truly effective. Developing countries must agree now to take on more stringent commitments over time, as they become wealthier. Second, long-term targets are required for this long-term problem. Unfortunately, the Kyoto Protocol focuses exclusively on short-term targets, which will be costly to meet, yet have, virtually, no effect on long-term climate change. Instead, costs can be kept down by employing moderate targets in the short-term to avoid drastic actions that will render plants and equipment prematurely, and unnecessarily, obsolete. But, at the same time, the future severity of the climate change threat requires that more ambitious long-term targets be put in place now to motivate needed technological change.

The third key element is to work through the market rather than against it. An international emissions trading system can cut overall costs by 50%. With this approach, wealthier countries can finance more climate friendly development paths in poorer nations, and thereby, be spared the most wrenching and least politically realistic adjustments at home.

Now, some observers may believe that Europeans have become so skeptical about the Bush administration that nothing the President proposes will be taken seriously. But here, it is helpful to keep in mind that many governments, European included, cannot deliver under Kyoto promises. As the Canadian Environment Minister recently said, Europe adopted a position they knew would force the United States to pull out.

I can't say that a progressive proposal from the Bush administration will win over Europe's green parties, but it could offer the path forward that Europe's leaders are desperately seeking. They know that an international agreement which does not include the U.S. will be ineffective and may well collapse under its own weight.

I am advocating a better way forward. President Bush can begin to work with other nations to develop the architecture of a new international agreement that is based on sound science, rational economics and pragmatic politics. This will place the United States where it ought to be on this pressing global issue--in a position of international leadership.



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