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Archive for Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Asia is key to global warming agreement

June 27, 2006

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Thanks to Al Gore's movie, 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 acknowledgement that the Asian economic revolution has made whatever problem exists much more difficult to solve.

The folks who focus on the U.S. need to comply with the Kyoto Agreement as the only impediment to a global solution are as outdated in their thinking as were the explorers of the Middle Ages who thought the world was flat.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 as a frenetic pace. Any agreement to limit global warming must include their participation also. An acknowledgement 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-type limits is almost as naive as it is simplistic.

The Chinese, as the New York Times pointed out recently, are so dependent on dirty coal for their power needs that their "dangerous brew of soot, toxic chemicals and climate-changing gases" are not just ruining the air quality for their own citizens, but in neighboring Asian nations as well. 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.

But China these days is a curious place. Capitalism has become the rage, but without the democratic political process that historically has accompanied it in virtually every other country.

The Chinese government remains a totalitarian one. It has made an implicit deal with its people to raise living standards in exchange for their acquiescence.

Without that economic growth that has raised the tens of millions of Chinese to middle-class status - and promises to do it for literally hundreds of millions more - unrest in some rural areas could increase and bring down the government.

That being the case, 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. And, 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 their Third World 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 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.

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