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Published: Saturday, 2/26/2005

Kyoto beckons

The historic Kyoto Protocol on climate change took effect virtually worldwide last week despite one large exception - the United States.

The preliminary United Nations climate change convention of 1993 was signed by 193 countries, including the United States. Four years later, the Kyoto Protocol set out specific goals for cutting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that trap heat in the environment. It came into effect Feb. 16 after ratification by 141 countries.

In the meantime, in 2001 the United States had withdrawn its signature from the 1993 convention and, of course, declines to ratify the protocol. The argument that the Bush Administration makes is that compliance and enforcement would cost too much, including the loss of American jobs.

It also considers the protocol unjust because it categorizes growing economic powers like China, India, and Brazil as developing countries, making their compliance with the Kyoto anti-pollution standards voluntary as opposed to the compulsory adherence forced on industrialized countries such as the United States, Japan, and most of Europe.

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the International Panel on Climate Change estimate that the Earth's temperature will rise by between 2.5 and 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. The impact of this rise, produced by heat trapped in the Earth's environment by the higher level of gases, will include droughts and floods. The thawing of Arctic tundra and the retreat of sea ice has begun already.

Three political arguments against ratification need to be confronted to clear the way for U.S. cooperation in attacking the global warming problem by re-signing the convention and signing the protocol.

There is no question that the United States needs to join the world on this issue. It generates one fifth to one quarter of the emissions in question, 13.4 percent more than in 1990. The United States and Australia, another nonsignatory state, have the two highest per capita emissions, yet Americans represent only 4.6 percent of the world's population. So we are the problem.

One argument against Kyoto is that the required changes in technology and compliance would damage the U.S. economy and result in job loss.

Meeting the challenge should, in fact, increase, rather than reduce, the number of jobs, and high-tech jobs at that. The American people have demonstrated before that they are capable of energy conservation, if only it were White House policy.

The second argument is that countries like China, India, and Brazil should have the obligatory standards applied to them as well. That requirement could be met by those countries committing themselves to meeting the standards when the measures of their expanding economies hit a particular point.

That is a measure that can be negotiated and one that the other signatories should be prepared to accept as the price of American participation.

The third argument is embarrassing. It says that the United States can ignore an accord like Kyoto and just steam ahead, doing what it likes, because it is somehow immune and invulnerable to the application of world standards to its behavior.

That is the misguided mentality that caused the U.S. Senate to reject the treaty's principles by a vote of 95-0 in 1997. It is also an argument that pretends that Americans don't live in the real world. Big mistake.



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