China complicates efforts to fight global warming

June 29, 2006|By PETER A. BROWN

Thanks to Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth, the global warming debate is back on our political radar screen. We can let the scientists sort out the accuracy of his vision of a world tilting toward ruin.

But even if Gore & Co. are correct that the international community must immediately act to stem the increase in global temperatures, conspicuously absent is any acknowledgment that the Asian economic revolution has made whatever problem exists much more difficult to solve.

The folks who focus on U.S. noncompliance with the Kyoto agreement as the only impediment to a global solution are as outdated in their thinking as were the explorers of the Middle Ages who thought the world was flat.

Yes, the United States, as the world's largest economy, remains the biggest source of greenhouse gases, and any international solution would require American participation.

But for any global agreement to win approval in Washington, it must recognize the belief that the restraints on emissions required by Kyoto will cost American jobs.

China, and to a lesser degree India and the other Asian tigers, are industrializing at a frenetic pace. Any agreement to limit global warming must include their participation. An acknowledgment of that reality by the environmentalists is the required first step in any effort to deal with the problem of rising world temperatures.

The Kyoto agreement was signed in 1997 before U.S. companies began outsourcing millions of jobs to China and India. The pact exempted both and other developing nations from the requirements of curbing emissions. The rationale was that the United States and Western Europe had caused most of the problem, so they should bear the brunt of the sacrifice.

It was a noble but impractical idea. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose nation signed the accord, acknowledged that "no country will want to sacrifice its economy" in the process. The United States refused to approve the agreement for that reason. Although Western European nations did, some of them have failed to keep the commitments they made.

That's why the idea that all the environmental folks have to do is show the Chinese how much they are polluting to get them to happily agree to the Kyoto limits is almost as naive as it is simplistic.

The New York Times reported recently that the Chinese are so dependent on dirty coal for their power needs that their "dangerous brew of soot, toxic chemicals and climate-changing gases" is ruining the air quality not just for their own citizens but also for those in neighboring Asian nations. In fact, the Times reported, the Chinese emissions are making the air in non-urban parts of the Western United States as dirty as ever recorded.

It is hard to see the Chinese easily agreeing to curb their emissions. Doing so would require expensive technology on their industrial plants that would make their products more expensive in the international marketplace.

Therefore, what American politician would support such steps at home with the knowledge that doing so would make U.S. products more expensive at the same time some of their global competitors are not complying?

It is easy for those no longer in the political trenches to take the absolutist position, but political death wishes are in short supply at the White House and in Congress these days.

That's why Mr. Gore and his buddies should learn to speak Chinese if they want to get an agreement that will be accepted in Washington.

Peter A. Brown is the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and a former editorial columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. His e-mail is peter.brown@quinnipiac.edu.

Columnist Thomas Sowell is on vacation.

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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