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Once Again, America Stands Alone

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
11.28.2000 | ENVIRONMENT

The fault line that opened up at the Climate Conference in The Hague last week is becoming a familiar one. As the talks went down in flames, it was apparent that Europe stood more or less united on one side, while a lonely eight-hundred pound guerilla named America pouted defiantly on the other. It was a split well rehearsed in recent months, most notably over America's plans to build a missile defense system in breach of the 1972 ABM Treaty with Russia.

As with missile defense, America's performance at The Hague made public its preference for unilateral (non) action on the question of carbon emmissions. Just as any future deployment of missile defense will have profound global reprecussions, so too will America's recent snubbing of the principles of the Kyoto Protocol.

The now defunct Kyoto Protocol drafted three years ago called for the advanced industrial economies to cut carbon emmissions to between 5% and 7% below 1990 levels by 2010. In 1997, this figure was seen as a major concession to the US, as many European delegations were calling for cuts as high as 20%. Many scientists saw even this as inadequate, and claimed that reductions of between 60% and 70% were needed to stabilize the climate.

But no matter. Thanks to US stonewalling the world is not burdened with another bureacracy butting into the business of pollution; there will be no un-American treaty limiting our god given right to drive an SUV or a tank to the grocery store. In particular, we can thank the concept of 'carbon sinks' as proffered by the American delegation, a red herring not mentioned in Kyoto that would allow countries to undershoot emmissions targets because of carbon absorbing flora within national borders. In essence, the US plan would have let the world's largest polluters increase their carbon gas output simply because they hadn't cut down all their forests yet.

The Homer Simpson quality of this proposal did not escape the European delegations, but Japan, Australia and Canada were intrigued enough by the idea to keep it alive and thus derail the momentum of finalizing actual emmissions cuts.

The limited Kyoto Protocol in itself is not a victim worth mourning. The tragic victim of The Hague failure was the concept of environmental collective security itself. Weakened was the very idea that capitalist states could come together and make sacrifices in short-term profit for the rational long-term preservation of the ecosphere. For it is upon the success of this that all other projects for social improvement in the next century depend. That the United States and two other G7 nations have still not grasped this is despairing.

But the pieces must be picked up. Proposals that European and other nations ratify a climate treaty without US participation are a good start. Of course any long-term meaningful reduction in greenhouse gasses will depend on US involvement--whose 4% of world population produce 25% of global emmissions--but the world cannot afford to wait for Goliath to come to his senses. By shutting the US out of emerging alternative energy industries, and more importantly building them up so they convincingly look like the future, the rest of the world--led by Europe--would bring the US into line quicker than a dozen conferences. Nothing else will force the US to abandon its unholy obstructionist alliance with the Saudis.

A similar strategy towards the US has been discussed with regards to nonproliferation and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It won't be easy to ignore the growing smokestacks and exhaust fumes in America as the rest of the world makes the painful transition towards sustainability; any more than it is to pretend America is not pursuing missile defense or dismissing important arms control treaties.

But we have little choice. Someone must grasp the mantle and move on quickly with saving the climate for future generations. Of course it would be helpful to have the unmatched power of America behind this historic effort, but the USA has other plans. To the extent that is politically and humanly possible, it would be a good thing if the world started just ignoring them.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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