Climate talks are on the rocks, but not dead yet
Milan is famous for opera and fashion, so perhaps it’s appropriate that the United Nations’ Kyoto Protocol conference, being held in the Italian city this week and next, has so far been characterized by high drama and public spectacle. Some 180 negotiators from around the world have been treated to rumors of deliberate sabotage and shady backroom deals, derisive public statements about the treaty from leading U.S officials, and bogus news reports that Russia had dealt a fatal blow to the beleaguered pact (one such report was summarized in yesterday’s Daily Grist before the error was exposed) — all this in just the first two days of the two-week conference.
The opening act starred Paula Dobriansky, the Bush administration’s leading representative at the conference and undersecretary of state for global affairs, who published an op-ed in the Financial Times on Monday denouncing the treaty. “[T]he Kyoto Protocol [is] an unrealistic and ever-tightening regulatory straitjacket, curtailing energy consumption,” she wrote.
Dobriansky went on to laud U.S. climate change “policy” — which is not enforced, but voluntary, and which hinges on the development of “breakthrough technologies” (most of them fossil fuel-based or reliant on carbon sequestration, which has not been proven effective). The technologies, she argued, will allow the United States to reduce emissions while continuing its upward surge in energy consumption.
According to Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate change program at the World Wildlife Fund and a participant in the Milan conference, “Dobriansky’s position clearly demonstrates the kind of obstructionist, uncooperative, unilateral, you’re-with-us-or- you’re-against-us attitude that has already seriously degraded U.S. international relations.” Worse, she said, the Bush administration has sent a large delegation of about 100 officials (from agencies ranging from the Department of Agriculture to the State Department) who are evidently trying to sabotage the talks — deliberately stalling and interrupting the negotiations.
“Many of these officials are high-level Bush appointees who are there to promote U.S. programs and conduct exclusive, bilateral talks with officials from other Kyoto-supporting countries,” such as Japan, Brazil, and Italy, said Morgan. The goal is to get these countries to collaborate on programs the U.S. is developing for carbon sequestration, “clean coal,” and fossil-fuel-derived hydrogen, among others — far-flung programs that show no short-term vision: “It seems to be an effort to coax these countries into bilateral agreements and, eventually, away from a cooperative global commitment,” said Morgan.
President Bush pledged in 2001 not to block other countries from moving forward on Kyoto, and this week White House spokesperson Scott McLellan vehemently denied that the administration is trying to influence other nations during the Milan negotiations. But Morgan doesn’t buy it: “[Bush is] clearly making efforts to move the world away from Kyoto as quickly as possible.”
So are some high-level advisors to Russian President Vladimir Putin — in particular, Andrei Illarionov, who misled reporters at the Kremlin on Tuesday when he announced: “Of course, in its current form, this protocol cannot be ratified.” Later that afternoon, a spokesperson for Putin’s office denied this, telling a Wall Street Journal reporter, “The Russian government does not yet have a clear position on the Kyoto Protocol. The question is being reviewed, and there are different opinions.”
An executive of a U.S. environmental organization who is at the conference and asked to remain anonymous said that, according to scuttlebutt in Milan, Illarionov may have personal ties to an American company that influenced his deceptive remark. “Illarionov has reportedly had extensive dealings with Exxon — a company that has a long-running track record of trying to defeat Kyoto,” said the executive. “I’ve heard from several sources that Illarionov recently presented a PowerPoint plan to international officials that had an Exxon logo in the corner of every page.” Putin, too, reportedly met with ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond during a visit to the U.S. in September 2003 — most likely to discuss the potential $26 billion deal between ExxonMobil and the Russian oil company Yukos that at the time was in negotiations.
Russia’s deep economic ties to energy industries may, indeed, threaten the future of the Kyoto Protocol — but the country is nevertheless many steps ahead of the U.S. in that it has clearly acknowledged the scientific fact of global warming and expressed a desire to take regulatory steps to address it. The Bush administration has done neither. In late November, Dobriansky herself made a speech at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute in which she declared, “The extent to which the man-made portion of greenhouse gases is causing temperatures to rise is still unknown.”
Photo: U.S. State Dept.
Dobriansky would do well to suppress this scientific ignorance in Milan — unless she’s prepared to get pelted off stage with rotten tomatoes. She would also be wise to refrain from repeating the condescending remark she made in her AEI speech about the failure of those who believe that global environmental conditions are getting progressively worse “to appreciate … the ability of technological breakthroughs to solve our environmental problems or render them moot.”
Of course, nobody committed to fighting global warming is oblivious to the promise of clean technologies — that’s why the countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol are busy adopting mandatory targets for use of renewable technologies and mandatory carbon-trading programs; that’s why they’re requiring the most sophisticated pollution filters on power plants and creating subsidies for short-term solutions like hybrid-engine cars. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is busy playing with smoke and mirrors.
Last week, the Bush administration was also busy granting the Pentagon broad exemptions from federal environmental laws in a supposed effort to address another international imbroglio: the War on Terror.
Photo: U.S. Army.
A bill signed by Bush last Monday, Nov. 24, authorizes $401.3 billion in defense spending for 2004 and also rejiggers two key environmental laws that have irked the Department of Defense. The federal Endangered Species Act was rewritten to prohibit federal wildlife officials from designating areas as “critical habitat” if they are needed for military training (no small concern, given that more than 300 species of endangered plants and animals live on the 25 million acres of federal land managed by the DOD). The Marine Mammal Protection Act was also rewritten to permit use of Navy test sonar systems that may injure whales, dolphins, and other protected marine animals.
The legislation, according to a written statement by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, will “provide greater flexibility to train our fighting forces in a realistic manner and allow us to carefully test and deploy critical technologies.” When championing the measure on the House floor in November, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) went even further: “The real endangered species here is a 19-year-old Marine rifleman who needs the very best training that he can get here at home before he projects American power overseas.” The closing words of Hunter’s speech practically dripped with emotion: “This is very, very important legislation, freedom-to-train legislation, Mr. Speaker.”
That jeremiad fell flat next to the commentary of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.). The ranking minority member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and a staunch opponent of the rule changes, Dingell got to the heart of the matter with a simple observation: “Over the last five years, our troops have toppled a dictator in Iraq, stopped a genocide in Kosovo, and defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan. Our troops prepared for those missions without exemptions from our cornerstone environmental laws.” He cited recent comments from former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Wesley Clark, a presidential contender, to corroborate these sentiments: “In all my years of service, complying with the environmental laws never compromised the military readiness of troops under my command. Additional exemptions aren’t needed.”
Clark’s opinion is shared by a vast majority of the American public. According to a Zogby poll from May 2003 — when America’s pro-war sentiment was at its height — the public opposed exempting the military from environmental laws by a margin of 84 to 10.
What concerns environmentalists most is that the original request for exemptions, which was leaked to the environmental community in December 2002, concerned not just two but at least five sweeping environmental laws — including the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (a toxic-waste law), and the Superfund hazardous-waste cleanup law. (More than 100 military sites are on the Superfund list of the nation’s most contaminated properties.) “They’ve got two down, and three to go,” said Megan Uzzell, a senior policy analyst at National Environmental Trust. “We fully expect that next year, the Bush administration will continue to make every effort to write the military out of these public health laws.”
Indeed, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has demanded even more exemptions. In a March 7, 2003, memo from Wolfowitz to the heads of the Army, Navy, and Air Force (download a PDF of the memo), he declared: “I believe it is time for us to give greater consideration to requesting such exemptions [from the laws mentioned above as well as the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, and more] in cases where environmental requirements threaten our continued ability to properly train and equip the men and women of the Armed Forces. … I hereby direct you to develop procedures that will ensure that … appropriately tailored exemption[s] [are developed] before military preparedness is affected.”
If the Bush administration gets its way, the “real endangered species” could be Bush voters who care at all about the environment — including tens of thousands of families living on or near the military’s 425 bases nationwide.
Mercury Rising — and Rising, and Rising …
Soon after Mike Leavitt made his first speech as U.S. EPA administrator Tuesday morning — a predictably glib and ambiguous commentary about his devotion to the environment — he made a move that was decidedly unambiguous and showed very little devotion to the environment. Leavitt submitted a proposal to the Office of Management and Budget that would rescind a landmark rule issued by the Clinton administration to significantly clean up emissions of the toxic pollutant mercury under the Clean Air Act.
The Bush administration has determined that the rule, which would have required coal-fired power plants to cut mercury emissions as much as technologically possible, can be replaced with a less costly, more flexible approach that would supposedly have similar health benefits. “We have conducted a thorough re-assessment of the [Clinton rule],” reads the proposal the EPA submitted to OMB, “and have determined that [our alternative rule] once implemented, would adequately address the hazards to public health associated with Hg [mercury] and Ni [nickel] emissions from electric utility steam generating units … and that the [Clinton regulation] is not necessary.”
What this fails to mention is that the Bush administration’s proposed alternative wouldn’t reach its target of a 70 percent reduction in mercury emissions until 2018 — and, much to the dismay of environmental advocates, it’s a cap-and-trade system. Cap-and-trade programs, which let companies buy and sell the right to emit pollutants, are widely considered to be a great approach to dealing with non-toxic emissions like carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide that diffuse into the air without affecting the neighborhoods where they are released — but other emissions, such as mercury, create local toxic hotspots in the areas immediately surrounding the polluting facility. In this case, if dirty plants in Chicago bought mercury pollution credits from clean plants in Maryland instead of cleaning up their own emissions, Chicago residents would get a real bum deal.
“This rollback on mercury standards could be worse for public health than the New Source Review rollback,” said Debbie Reed, a legislative director at National Environmental Trust and former legislative director in the Clinton White House. “In a word, mercury is a neurotoxin.” It’s been proven to cause severe brain damage and developmental problems in humans, and its current levels are dangerously high. When spewed from coal-fired power plants, mercury contaminates nearby waters and is easily absorbed into the flesh of fish — which is why pregnant women are often cautioned not to eat fish. Forty-one states currently have fish-consumption advisories due to mercury poisoning.
“This is another arsenic,” said Frank O’Donnell, executive director of Clean Air Trust. “The Bush administration is gutting standards on a toxic regulation and threatening public heath — in this case as an early Christmas present to the coal industry.” Let’s hope that it’s enough like the arsenic fiasco that public outrage will prevent the rule from becoming official.