Snubbing Kyoto: Our Monumental Shame

Laurie David is a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council and co-founder of the Detroit Project, a not-for-profit campaign that pressures automakers to produce fuel-efficient cars.

Next Wednesday, in the enormous glass-paneled European Union Parliament building in Brussels, hundreds of men and women will gather to mark the start of a new era. A similar celebration will be held in Toronto, another in Casablanca and others in Tokyo, New Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Auckland and Mexico City, among other places.

In each of these cities, people will be celebrating an unprecedented international treaty that’s going into effect that day. It is the product of eight years of work and it has brought 141 countries together. It represents exactly the kind of broad global undertaking that idealists all over the world have been striving for since the end of World War II: a massive, worldwide plan to address a terribly pressing problem confronting the entire planet.

The treaty is the Kyoto Protocol, a collective response to the greatest security crisis in the world -- global warming.

But one country will not be celebrating. The United States. Even though almost all European countries are on board, and even though Russia is on board and even though China is on board, the United States, in an act of supreme irresponsibility, is standing on the platform watching the train leave the station. (The only other industrialized nations that have failed to join the protocol are Monaco and Australia.)


This is particularly egregious when you consider that the United States would be by far the most significant participant. That’s because it is the single biggest polluter on the planet, accounting for about one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases.

Why won’t the United States take part? Because the Bush administration refuses to believe in science and refuses to ask for responsible leadership from its giant corporate backers. Instead, genuflecting to the coal, oil and automobile lobbies, our country continues to act like a superpower bully that does what it wants, when it wants and how it wants -- deadly consequences be damned.

The rules that apply to the rest of the world, the administration in effect is saying, need not apply to us. International agreements -- whether they involve the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol or the Geneva Convention -- should not be allowed to bind the hands of the most powerful nation on Earth. On that point, at least, the U.S. is are consistent.

At a time when international cooperation is more important than ever, it’s hard to overstate just how out of step the United States is with the rest of the world. Instead of providing leadership, we are standing in the doorway of the future blocking an eminently reasonable attempt at self-preservation.

Few people bother to deny the problem anymore. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for instance, noted the “emerging consensus” on climate change at the Davos conference last month.

But the U.S. energy industry continues to spend millions on lobbyists and propagandists in an effort to spread doubt and confusion on the subject. The industry, instead of putting money into research and development to come up with the renewable energy technologies desperately needed to secure both our national security and its own economic future, has mounted a relentless campaign to discredit the truth.

Of course, corporate America would not have the power to torpedo common-sense solutions to an imminent threat were it not for the complicity of our elected officials. Take Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. He has been so hypnotized by enormous campaign contributions from the energy industry that he actually had the chutzpah to say that “global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

And what’s Michael Crichton’s excuse? His latest best-selling novel, “State of Fear,” offers up the delusional notion that global warming is the creation of environmental groups looking to boost their profile and fill their coffers. This is like arguing that the link between smoking and cancer was dreamed up by oncologists, radiologists and funeral home directors. Unfortunately, Crichton’s sophomoric fiction may be the only thing many Americans read on global warming.


The truth is that the jury is no longer out; there is no more room or time for confusion, doubt or skepticism. Global warming is real and rapidly altering our weather, our economy and our world. The 1990s were the hottest decade in the last 1,000 years, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Nine of the 10 hottest years on record occurred after 1994, according to the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization.

The arctic ice sheet has shrunk 20% since 1979. And bears are coming out of hibernation a month early, throwing off their entire life cycles.

The can’t-do crowd in our industry and our government continues to claim that anything we do to control emissions will hurt our economy unacceptably. Get real!

The Kyoto Protocol is not the be-all to ending global warming, but it is an important first step. And we are spitting in the eye of the rest of the world by refusing to be part of it.