The U.S. Has Abdicated Its Position as World Leader

Burton Richter is the Paul Pigott Professor of Physical Sciences at Stanford University and co-winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physics

The current talk about climate change and reducing the emission of greenhouse gases reminds me of a line in Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado," where Pooh-Bah sings, "And I am right and you are right and everything is quite correct."

President Bush says the Kyoto treaty is fatally flawed because it doesn't obligate developing nations to reduce emissions, and he is right. China says it didn't cause the problem, that it is poor and needs to grow its economy to improve people's standard of living, and China is right. Europe says the problem is urgent, and the developed world must begin to do something now, and Europe, too, is right. Reconciling these conflicting views will be a tough job requiring real leadership. Regretfully, I don't see much of that here in the U.S.

Bush's position has distanced the U.S. from many of its traditional allies, who despite differences among themselves, managed to hammer out an agreement last week in Bonn. Bush, though, wouldn't play ball, arguing that the developing world has to commit to reductions, too. In a few decades, opponents of the Kyoto Accord note, the developing world will be emitting more greenhouse gases than the industrialized world. If the developing world continues on its current path, even if the industrialized world reduces its carbon dioxide emissions to zero, by 2050 we would be worse off than we are today.

But China (India too) has a huge population and a low standard of living. Its only hope to improve the lot of its people is economic growth. Growth, though, requires energy, the production of which produces carbon dioxide. And while China is improving its energy efficiency faster than anyone expected, it is also producing more greenhouse gases as its economy grows. Still, the developing world has not caught up with the industrialized nations in carbon dioxide emissions, so it is no surprise they are saying, "you first" with regard to emission reductions.

The Europeans say, "Let's stick to the Kyoto Protocol and bring the developing world in later." There is some hypocrisy in their position. We could have had a deal last year but for Europe's refusal to allow the U.S. credit for taking carbon dioxide out of the air through reforestation and other methods. Europe also had a smaller economic growth spurt during the '90s than did the U.S., which makes it easier for them to meet the Kyoto goals. Nonetheless, European nations have committed to make sacrifices to meet carbon dioxide targets.

Among all this righteousness, we are the least righteous. The others are at least doing something while we do nothing. The Bush administration talks of voluntary reductions but does not set any goals. It talks about developing more carbon-free energy sources at the same time it is cutting funding for research and development. We currently have only 5% of the world's population, yet we emit 1.5 billion tons per year of carbon dioxide, or about a quarter of the net total emissions worldwide. It's no surprise the rest of the world suspects our commitment to reducing emissions.

We should certainly work internationally to address President Bush's concerns, but we also need to work domestically to address the concerns of the rest of the world. We have lots of opportunity, as we are the least energy-efficient society in the industrialized world. We use twice as much energy per dollar of gross domestic product as Japan does and about 1.5 times as much as Western Europe. It is quite possible--with efficiency improvements and fuel substitution--to grow our economy by the 3% per year projected by the Bush administration without increasing our net carbon dioxide emissions.

On the international front, the president has to be much clearer about what he wants. He cannot expect developing countries to cut their emissions from current levels, for that would mean that they have to remain poor. He can, however, expect that they should start to improve their energy efficiency, which is now much worse than even ours. Low-tech, energy-inefficient industry goes with being poor. We should be talking about a two-step process with China and India, which together have about 40% of the world's population. As a first step, they should be helped to improve their energy efficiency while also growing their economies. Then, when they are less poor, they should be brought under the same kind of controls that govern the industrialized world. Whatever system is developed with these two countries can later be applied as a model for the rest of the poor nations of the world.

We see ourselves as the world leader, but we show no sign of actually leading in this matter. It won't do to do nothing, which is all we seem to be doing.

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