An agenda for Earth Summit


April 20, 1992|By Daniel Ihara

AS THE June United Nations Conference on Environment and Development approaches, an historic opportunity is being lost.

Negotiators for 170 countries reconvene in New York on April 30 to complete a UN agreement on the environment to be signed in Rio de Janeiro. A major difficulty confronts them: the Bush administration's repeated refusal to set a target for reducing U.S. carbon emissions. As Sen. Albert Gore, who leads the U.S. Senate delegation to these negotiations, points out, such intransigence jeopardizes the entire agreement. The U.S. lack of cooperation fosters a winner-loser mentality regarding the summit: Who is gaining from agreement on global warming policy? Who is losing form it?

The reality is that all can gain from agreement on global warming policy.

Bangladesh enjoying less likelihood of coastal flooding does not diminish the benefit from less variable weather in the Great Plains. Even if some region, for example Siberia, gained from global warming itself, net benefits from agreement on global warming policy can be distributed so all gain.

Why is the U.S. position on carbon emissions such a stumbling block?

We all resent contributing when others are not doing their "fair share." This is precisely the criticism leveled at the U.S. With only 5 per cent of the world's population, the U.S. produces 17 percent of the world's fossil fuel carbon emissions. Although the U.S. emits twice the carbon dioxide per person as does Japan and 15 times as much as India, the U.S. is the only major industrial country refusing to set a carbon emissions target. The Bush administration's recent proposal to assist developing countries in their global warming related efforts only partially counters criticism.

By not doing its fair share, the U.S. compounds what I call "the dilemma of the noisy bar." In a noisy bar, it is to each individual's advantage to speak more loudly. Yet if all speak loudly the resulting din, compared to a quieter outcome, is mutually less preferred. Acting out of self-interest in such a case is simply not in one's best interests.

In regard to global warming, if each country seeks an advantageous level of fossil fuel use, each country will find the resulting increase in weather variability less appealing than what it would experience with cooperation. In particularly, any U.S. gains from continuing its fossil fuel profligacy would end when other countries inevitably resented the lack of cooperation and pursued similar short-sighted policies.

As the post-World War II era began, several initiatives and institutions were established based on enlightened mutual benefit -- the Marshall Plan and the United Nations itself come to mind. As the post-Cold War era begins, there needs to be similar enlightened cooperation to secure mutual benefits for ourselves and our children.

Although uncertainty surrounds global climate change, one thing certain: If the United States pursues short term self-interest -- by once more acting like the loudest mouth in a noisy bar -- global climate change difficulties will not be overcome. If, on the other hand, mutual gains are honestly pursued, the benefits will be quietly achieved.

Daniel Ihara is a professor of economics at Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin.

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