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

Buenos Ares 1: Climate Change Talks Preview

Air Date: Week of

There's a lot of hot air circulating about the current round of the Kyoto Protocol, or global climate change accord, now taking place among 166 nations in Buenos, Aires, Argentina. Steve Curwood has an overview of the U.S. response to reducing carbon emissions, and a preview of what is expected to evolve during the talks.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

KNOY: And I'm Laura Knoy. Since 1991, diplomats have been holding a series of meetings on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases that most scientists say are changing the planet's climate. So far most nations, including the United States, have ratified the framework convention on climate change. The treaty calls on industrialized nations to voluntarily cut emissions of carbon dioxide. But last year, when negotiators met in Kyoto, Japan, to set binding limits, the bargaining got sticky. The United States wanted to limit the emissions of developing as well as industrial nations, and set up an emissions trading scheme. But the details of trading were left up in the air, and developing nations refused to commit themselves.

CURWOOD: The Clinton Administration has promised to sign the Kyoto Accord, but so far most members of the US Senate say without what they call "meaningful participation" from developing nations, they won't ratify the treaty. And because the US emits so much carbon dioxide, the Kyoto Protocol would be meaningless without full US participation. Negotiators are now meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to try to work through their disagreements. But you can watch international deals run smack into domestic politics just by turning on your television set.

(TV static)

WOMAN: The credit card...

WOMAN 2: (Dramatic music) But a treaty being pushed by the United Nations (a gavel strikes) could change our lives forever. It will impose new costs that could limit how and when we use our cars (gavel strikes), heat our homes, and use electricity (gavel strikes), and would raise the price of food, clothes, and most things we buy (gavel strikes). The UN's treaty would dictate how we live our lives, while letting countries like India, China, and Mexico off the hook. It's not global. And it won't work.

CURWOOD: That ad was produced by a coalition of trade groups which would be affected by curbs on fossil fuel use. Groups including the American Automobile Manufacturers Association and the American Petroleum Institute. Big labor is leery of the treaty, too. Gene Trisko, an attorney who represents the United Mine Workers, says increased energy prices will push industry offshore.

TRISKO: About 1.3 million Americans stand to lose their jobs across all industries over the course of the next decade if this treaty is implemented.

PASACANTANDO: That's what's called hooey.

CURWOOD: John Pasacantando, director of the group Ozone Action, concedes that some coal miners will have to find new work. But he claims that few other jobs are at stake because energy is a small part of the overall cost of doing business. Europe and Japan, he adds, have much higher energy costs than the US, yet they compete handily. Labor and industry, he says, are crying wolf.

PASACANTANDO: Ninety-five percent of our core business in the United States has its input from energy as 4%, 4% of their total revenue. Meaning if you raise the cost of energy, lower the cost of energy, whatever you do to the cost of energy, it's just that one small piece. Their cost of labor, their cost of equipment, their cost of just about anything else, their health care costs, are higher than that.

CURWOOD: But in the US Senate, where the treaty must be ratified, there is strong sentiment that developing nations must be active participants in the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This demand was nailed to the door of the Oval Office last year when the Senate passed a non-binding resolution cosponsored by the former Democratic Majority Leader Robert Byrd from the coal state of West Virginia, and the Nebraska Republican Chuck Hegal. The resolution passed 95 to nothing with little debate. Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut was one of those who voted for the measure, although now he has second thoughts.

LIEBERMAN: The so-called Byrd-Hegal Senate Resolution sets down a difficult standard, which is that the Senate should not ratify anything coming out of Kyoto regarding climate change unless the developing nations also accept commitments. I don't think that's a fair standard, but that's what a lot of members of the Senate voted for.

CURWOOD: There are some Senators who consider themselves environmental advocates who still support the resolution's goals. Among them is John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who's often mentioned as a Presidential candidate for the year 2000. He says that countries like India and China should be part of any agreement with binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

KERRY: If they're not, we could go 10 years down the road and find that China has eclipsed us in the level of emissions and everything that we've done has been for nought, together with the fact that we've hurt our economy and diminished, you know, made whatever sacrifices have been made while they've been soaring past us. And obviously that would be unacceptable politically.

CURWOOD: The Byrd-Hegal Resolution is a problem for the Administration because the US agreed during the negotiations leading up to Kyoto that industrialized nations would be the first to shoulder the burden of cutting greenhouse gases. Rafe Pomerance is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Environment and a member of the Climate Change Negotiating Team. He says to meet the concerns of both the US Senate and developing nations, the Administration is engaged in a series of bilateral talks with countries including Mexico, Korea, and China.

POMERANCE: The Administration has said, the President said we will not send the Kyoto Protocol up to the Senate for ratification until we have meaningful participation of developing countries.

CURWOOD: But the White House has left vague exactly what it means by "meaningful participation." At a recent Congressional hearing, Democrat John Dingell confronted the Acting Assistant Secretary of State Melissa Kimball. Mr. Dingell represents Michigan's blue-collar 16th Congressional District, dominated by auto and other heavy industries.

DINGELL: Now I keep hearing this wonderful word, "meaningful participation." Meaningful participation. Does it mean meaningful? Or does it mean meaningless? If it is not meaningful, it is to me meaningless.

KIMBALL: This -- this --

DINGELL: Now you tell me what it means.

KIMBALL: This is our way of trying to convey very clearly that developing countries must play in the protocol.

DINGELL: But tell me, what mechanism do we have to hold these countries to meaningful participation?

KIMBALL: Once again, I think it's very --

DINGELL: We have none.

KIMBALL: -- important to realize the treaty's obligation and coming into the United States --

DINGELL: Where is it? Where is it, Ms. Kimball, in this treaty? Where?

KIMBALL: -- United States has --

CURWOOD: This is just one in a series of grueling hearings that Congress has imposed on the Administration Climate Team. Indiana Republican David McIntosh, a protegee of former Vice President Dan Quayle, has been leading the attack. The White House claims it's had to spend 10,000 hours of staff time fishing out 400,000 pages of documents to comply with 22 separate requests from Mr. McIntosh's Government Reform Subcommittee alone. I caught up with Representative McIntosh outside the Republican National Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill.

(Traffic sounds)

CURWOOD: The Administration complains that you're giving them a hard time. They say they're seeing all these requests for documents. It's costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars. They say that you're trying to throw a monkey wrench in their works. How do you respond?

MCINTOSH: What is happening is, the Administration is telling Congress, "We're not implementing Kyoto until we send you the treaty." And yet the documents that they are hiding from us lay out plans to implement and have new regulations, impose the costs, including ideas about going forward with a carbon tax, if possible, restrictions on various industries. And people need to know about it. And so, what I'm telling them is, give us the documents, we'll look through them, then we'll make them part of our hearings so that everybody gets to see the documents, and the public will know what's really happening.

POMERANCE: I don't think there is such a thing as back-door implementation.

CURWOOD: The State Department's Rafe Pomerance says the Administration does not need to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to begin taking action.

POMERANCE: What's really going on is that we have an obligation to continue to implement the framework convention signed in Rio. The United States was the fourth country in the world to ratify it. It was done without objection in the Senate. When Kyoto is ready, we'll send it up to the Senate, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be doing anything. We're obliged to do so.

CURWOOD: But the US is not curbing emissions. US carbon dioxide levels are up more than 10% since 1990. And, says Ozone Action's John Pasacantando, the problem is not just Congress.

PASACANTANDO: One of the major problems here is that despite very good rhetoric coming out of the Clinton Administration, in particular from a Vice President who knows the issue of global warming as well as any politician on the planet, the Administration has put forth little beyond its rhetoric. And actual measures that they could take, that the Administration could take, small changes, large changes, aren't being taken.

CURWOOD: Well, what could the Administration do here?

PASACANTANDO: The Administration put together legislation on electric utility restructuring, okay, how to modernize our whole system of electric utilities. It didn't have any mention of it, any requirement in it, for caps on carbon dioxide emissions. I mean, that tells you right there they don't want to touch it.

CHAFFEE: Quite simply, the problem is this. The United States is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. And we're not assuming a position of leadership on the climate change issue.

CURWOOD: John Chafee, Republican Senator from Rhode Island.

CHAFEE: On the contrary, the tenor of our domestic political debate makes it clear to other nations that the United States is unable to conduct a rational dialogue on the subject.

CURWOOD: On the eve of the current negotiations in Argentina, Senator Chafee and his Democratic colleague Joseph Lieberman jointly sponsored a bill to provide incentives to companies that take early steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It's a message to other nations that at least some members of the Senate want the US to begin taking action now to combat climate change. It's also a pat on the back to companies already moving to cut emissions.

CHAFEE: Let's have our nation and our domestic industries be there first with the new technologies and practices that will make reductions everywhere else in the world achievable.

CURWOOD: Senator Chafee's call resonates with many firms which are beginning to say industrialized nations must take steps now to halt climate change. And these are not just little alternative energy companies. This movement is being led by British Petroleum and includes some of the world's largest, most energy-intensive corporations. Aircraft manufacturer Boeing, car maker Toyota, and more than a dozen other Fortune 500 companies have joined the Pew Center on Global Climate Change to call for action. General Motors and Monsanto are making similar moves in concert with the World Resources Institute in Washington. Eileen Claussen, a former Assistant Secretary of State, is the director of the Pew Center.

CLAUSSEN: So, I think what's important is that companies who want to start reducing not be penalized but be credited for the reductions that they take. There are lots of companies, and of course, you know, we have 18 and there are, I'm sure, many others who really would like to start taking some action now. They just want to make sure that it counts. They don't lose because they took action early.

CURWOOD: While the talks this month in Argentina may move at a glacial pace, some say that's par for the course with an issue as contentious and as complex as global climate change. Some international agreements, like the one that created the World Trade Organization, have taken a decade or more to negotiate and ratify. Domestic politics are often behind these delays. For the Kyoto Accord, one Democratic party operative put it this way: the Administration will do what it needs to keep the international talks from completely grinding to a halt. But at this point, there is no way it'll send the Kyoto Protocol up for Senate ratification before Vice President Gore faces the electorate as a Presidential candidate. It appears there's just too much opposition in the industrial heartland of America, and Mr. Gore couldn't win the White House without those Midwestern electoral votes.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth