Nuance in the atmosphere

Debra J. Saunders

7/15/2004 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders

 When Sen. John Edwards addressed the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board in February before the California Democratic primary, I asked him if he would ask the Senate to ratify the Kyoto global-warming treaty. "Yes," the presidential candidate answered. He then added that he believed Sen. John Kerry shared his position. Wrong.

 The next day, when presidential candidate Kerry talked to the Chronicle editorial board, he said that he would not ask the Senate to ratify Kyoto.

 Now, the Democratic Party has dropped support for Kyoto (a plank in the 2000 party platform) from the initial draft of the national platform for 2004. John Kerry, you see, is no Al Gore, who negotiated the treaty for Bill Clinton in 1997.

 Still, it's easy to understand how Edwards, now Kerry's running mate for the White House, was confused.

 Teresa Heinz Kerry demonstrates her husband's green credentials by boasting that he has attended more Kyoto conferences than any other major politician in America.

 Many news stories in 1997 referred to Kerry's support of Kyoto, undeterred by the Massachusetts senator's vote with 94 other senators for a resolution that directed President Clinton to not agree to a global-warming pact that exempted developing nations. (Veep Al Gore ignored the Senate and agreed to a pact that exempts China, India and other developing nations from any pollution caps, while requiring the United States to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.)

 At the February editorial board meeting, Kerry said, "I believe there is a formula to bring the less-developed countries into this solution. And that's what you have to do. You can't have the United States of America and the developed world reducing emissions, while China and Mexico, South Korea and other countries, India, just going crazy spewing about."

 Kerry pledged to "immediately go back to the table and immediately indicate America's willingness to be responsible to engage in a legitimate dialogue about how we're going to do this."

 While Europeans generally see President Clinton as supporting Kyoto -- after all, his administration signed the pact -- Clinton never sent the treaty to the Senate for ratification. Hence, it was never official U.S. policy.

 More important, when Clinton left office, emissions were 14 percent higher than 1990 levels. Clearly, Clinton was never serious about meeting the Kyoto goals. Clinton, no fool, knew how compliance with Kyoto would damage the U.S. economy.

 Emissions have fallen during the Bush years to 11.5 percent higher than 1990 levels. Still, some environmentalists privately agree that it is not practical to expect the United States to meet the Kyoto goals -- although they believe Washington could do more to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

 Kerry has been highly critical of President Bush's unapologetic rejection of Kyoto, which so incensed Our Betters in Europe.

 In retrospect, I have to agree. Bush could have given the pact lip service only -- as Clinton did -- and Europe would have been mollified. Or Bush could have sent the pact to the Senate, and watched both Democrats and Republicans reject it and take the heat of the (all-bow) international community. By being blunt, Bush unnecessarily alienated allies.

 That said, it would be interesting to see how Europe would react if a President Kerry rejected Kyoto. Kerry says that, unlike Bush, he would rush to the bargaining table to work out a new treaty. But after they have spent years demanding compliance with Kyoto itself, would that be enough to appease France, Germany and the United Kingdom?

 Maybe it would.

 Maybe it is because Kyoto is more about hot air -- bashing America's big cars and affluence -- than it is about greenhouse gases. Maybe, if a top U.S. pol says nice things about Kyoto, that's enough. So if Kerry could fool John Edwards about his support for Kyoto, maybe he can fool the rarified minds of Europe, too.