An article in the Washington Post last week prompted me to remember the history of our rhetoric on Kyoto, global warming, and developing countries.

Since at least the 1990s, polluting industries and their friends in elected office have argued that until developing countries such as India and China are required to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. should not be bound by it. They claimed that this would be unfair, and that our industries would be rendered uncompetitive by the treaty’s costs. This disingenuous claim is instead causing us to miss out on global opportunities.

In 1997, the Byrd-Hagel Resolution garnered 97 of 100 senate votes, calling for the U.S. to boycott any agreement that didn’t include greenhouse gas commitments by developing countries. Since then, the resolution has been co-opted and misinterpreted by those who oppose any action on global warming, who argue that the resolution was the equivalent of a congressional rejection of Kyoto. Senator Byrd has since said numerous times that the resolution has been taken out of context. At the time, many senators considered the resolution’s call to be merely for action by developing countries to adopt clean energy technologies, address deforestation, or take other steps to help mitigate global climate change — not be required to live up to the same obligations as developed countries like the U.S. After all, developed nations already caused most of the global warming problem and it is our responsibility to take the first steps to remedy it.

Demonstrating that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is not only relatively inexpensive but also a smart business proposition will prompt others will follow. Already, Kyoto has led to projects in developing countries that would not have otherwise happened: reforestation projects, windpower projects, and capture of landfill pollutants. (Check out the World Bank’s carbon finance activities). As a result of forgoing environmental leadership, our environmental and clean energy companies are missing out on opportunities overseas and are becoming less competitive. The vast majority of hybrid gas-electric cars on American roads are not from American companies. Without market signals to invest in clean and efficient technologies, our companies have little incentive to be at the cutting edge of these new markets. A mandatory cap and trade program such as the one advocated for by Senators McCain and Lieberman is the most efficient way to address global warming — it allows the market to find the winners and losers.

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At the time Byrd-Hagel was passed, the U.S. Department of Energy was working cooperatively with developing nations in Latin America, as well as India and China, to open markets to clean technologies and put in place sound policies and regulations to level the playing field for renewable energy and energy efficiency investments. Energy companies lauded efforts to support their competition in these new markets and new joint venture opportunities with companies in developing countries.

Now, China has not only passed a more stringent fuel economy requirement for automobiles than the U.S., but has also called for a halt and formal environmental review of all planned power projects (worth over $10 billion) — in part due to concerns about global warming.

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But the Bush administration and Congressional leaders continue to claim that inaction by developing nations is a central reason why the U.S. should not sign Kyoto — or even support the McCain-Lieberman bill. If the U.S. really wants developing country action to address global warming, why has the U.S. Department of Energy’s renewable energy and energy efficiency international budget been reduced to near zero under the Bush administration? Because the U.S. wants to promote international cooperation to address global warming? It seems that perhaps some in the administration would rather keep the convenient excuse that because developing nations are not acting, neither are we. They do so at a cost to our economy and our future.