Europe and Japan Misread Kerry on Kyoto; Global Warming

Nigel Purvis
Nigel Purvis Former Brookings Expert

April 5, 2004

Is Senator John Kerry the answer to European and Japanese prayers on global warming? Perhaps, but contrary to international expectations, President Kerry would not get the United States into the Kyoto Protocol.

When it comes to the environment, President George W. Bush and John Kerry are like oil and water. The environment is a bottom-rung priority for Bush, while Kerry has the greenest voting record in the U.S. Senate and speaks passionately about global warming. On the campaign trail, Kerry characterizes Bush’s unilateral rejection of Kyoto as evidence of the Texan’s high-handed, shortsighted and arrogant foreign policy. Kerry’s new environmental plan states flatly that “John Kerry will reinsert the United States into international climate negotiations.” Little wonder European and Japanese politicians are counting on Kerry to revive U.S. support for Kyoto. But those hopes are misplaced.

First, the United States could not comply with the Kyoto requirements even if it tried. Kyoto would require the United States to reduce its climate emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. U.S. emissions are already more than 12 percent above 1990 levels and are rising with no end in site. Even U.S. environmentalists who believed Kyoto’s U.S. target was achievable in 1997 concede that it is beyond reach today.

Second, even a watered-down version of Kyoto would have a difficult time in Congress during a Kerry presidency. The U.S. Constitution requires two-thirds of the Senate to approve treaties. Just last fall, a majority of senators rejected a bipartisan climate-change proposal sponsored by two former presidential candidates, Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, despite the fact that the bill was far less ambitious than Kyoto. Although some version of the McCain-Lieberman bill might pass the Senate in a few years, securing the two-thirds majority needed for ratification of a new climate treaty would take longer. Navigating the more hostile House of Representatives—whose approval is essential for implementing legislation needed to give treaties teeth—would be an even larger challenge. In the House, opposition to action on climate change has been a badge of honor for conservatives, who are expected to solidify their control over that body in November regardless of who wins the White House.

Third, Kerry himself says that he will advance “alternatives to Kyoto” after the United States enacts comprehensive domestic climate-change regulation, including rules for a new domestic financial market for emission credits. Kerry understands that the Senate rarely approves international agreements, particularly environmental treaties, unless they are based on prior domestic action. The international agreement to repair the “ozone hole,” which the United States joined easily, for example, was modeled on a pre-existing U.S. law. Kyoto, however, was an international solution imported before the development of a consensus national policy. Little wonder it became a political piñata. Chalk it up to American hegemony, leadership or arrogance, as you please, but the United States tends to treat international pressure to ratify treaties that diverge from U.S. laws the way most people handle spam e-mail—by ignoring it.

Europe and Japan should continue prodding the United States toward a more responsible climate policy, but counting on the United States returning to the Kyoto bargaining table is not the best approach. What should they do instead? Foremost, they must meet their global warming commitments, regardless of whether Russia ratifies Kyoto and thereby brings the treaty to life. Despite grumblings from some quarters, Europe and, to a lesser extent, Japan are on the verge of adopting meaningful and farsighted market-oriented climate strategies. Following through on promises to reduce emissions would symbolize European and Japanese political commitment to the global environment and demonstrate to U.S. industry that fighting climate change can be affordable.

Second, Europe and Japan should press the United States to regulate carbon and other greenhouse gases under U.S. domestic law. America’s domestic action matters more than its international promises.

Third, Europe and Japan should challenge the United States to increase funding for international clean-energy research and development programs and for engaging major developing countries by pledging to match any new U.S. climate change expenditures (beyond what Bush has already announced) up to an additional $10 billion a year. These programs help fight global warming by creating a new generation of cleaner, more efficient automobiles and electricity power plants at home and abroad. Any of these steps would influence U.S. policy more than pleas to rejoin what many Americans view as a slow and politically tainted United Nations negotiating process.

On global warming, Bush is on the wrong side of history. Europe is not, but its focus on the Kyoto process as the vehicle for engaging the United States is unhelpful. While the climate policies of the United States would improve with a Kerry presidency, Kyoto is not in the cards for the United States, regardless of who sits in the White House. Europe should move ahead with its Kyoto-based plans, but it should also develop some parallel approaches that America could find appealing.