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Western Press Review: Commentators Say 'Sayonara' Kyoto

  • Don Hill

Prague, 30 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" commentators write today of "indignation," others speak of disappointment over President George W. Bush's decision to abandon the anti-global-warning international protocol worked out with such difficulty in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. A number of commentaries in our survey of the Western press discuss Kyoto and the U.S. policy change.


The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung"'s Christoph Schwennicke and Cornelia Bolesch write from Washington: "It was made known [last week] that the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman, had warned Bush against a change of course and of the massive resistance this would meet from the rest of the world. Whitman later said openly that the Kyoto deal was 'dead as far as [Bush's] administration is concerned.'"

The writers conclude: "In Japan, the prevailing opinion was that the United States -- of all countries -- must sign the protocol. The Kyoto Protocol envisages cutting emissions of carbon dioxide by 5.2 percent by 2010. Disputed is how this target can be reached. This is meant to be worked out at [a] Bonn meeting [in July]. The United States could simply desert the protocol without any great legal hurdles."


In Britain's "Guardian" daily, commentator Charles Secrett likens yesterday's U.S. withdrawal from even token support of Kyoto to its actions in the 1930s when, he says, a short-sighted U.S. Republican Party tried to ignore rampant Nazism. Secrett writes: "In the 1930s, the Republican Party fought to avoid any involvement in the affairs of Europe. As the Nazi threat grew, Republicans, infected by ignorance, selfishness, and short sight, tried to stop the United States from supporting democracy and freedom.

"Today," Secrett continues, "the greatest threat to world security is man-made climate change. The jobs, homes, and lives of millions of people -- in the United States as well as the rest of the world -- are at risk from an ever-accelerating rate of climate disasters. We must act now. Yet, as one might miserably expect, Republican isolationism has evolved, first to deny its existence and second to set the United States against agreeing on any effective international action."


The "New York Times," in more measured terms, also criticizes U.S. withdrawal from the protocol. The newspaper says in an editorial that more than global warming measures is at stake: "Europe may seem like familiar territory to Bush administration officials, many of whom dealt with the continent during the Cold War years when European leaders were more deferential to Washington's wishes than they are now. Administration policy makers must adjust their thinking to Europe's new mood or risk conflicts over the environment, arms control, NATO, and trade."

The newspaper says: "The Kyoto treaty, which calls for sharp reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide by 2012, is a good example. While the treaty is imperfect, and the [U.S.] Senate has been opposed to ratification, the issue is far too important for Washington simply to walk off in a huff. The Bush administration should try to improve the treaty, not kill it. America is the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Mr. Bush should heed [German Chancellor Gerhard] Schroeder's pleas for faster emissions cuts."


Another U.S. newspaper, the "Boston Globe," uses expressions such as "flip-flop," "dangerous," and "irresponsible" to describe the policy change. Its editorial says: "President Bush's abrupt decision to pull out of the 160-nation agreement on global warming must have come as a nasty surprise, not just to our allies in Europe and Asia, but also to members of his own cabinet. Just three weeks ago in Trieste, Italy, the United States signed a statement with the Group of Seven plus Russia industrial countries reaffirming the commitment to ensure the environmental integrity of the Kyoto Protocol and expressing concern about the seriousness of the global warming threat. Among the signers was the chief U.S. delegate to the G-7 plus Russia meeting, Christine Todd Whitman, the director of the Environmental Protection Agency."

The editorial concludes with a question "What if the 2,000 esteemed scientists in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who first predicted the costly and dangerous climatic disruptions, are right?"


Amid the negative near-consensus on the U.S. policy switch, the conservative U.S. newspaper "Wall Street Journal Europe," stands almost -- but not quite -- alone in defending the Bush decision. It says in effect that the critics don't understand what happened.

The newspaper's editorial is headlined -- with "schadenfreude" (that is, pleasure in misfortune) -- "Sayonara ("good-bye" in Japanese), Kyoto:" It says: "It's hard to know which reaction was more misguided -- 'Those cowboy-boot-wearing Americans will pay for this,' or 'It's OK, everything can be worked out -- we just need to iron out some of the details.' Both reveal a misunderstanding of what's just happened."

The paper continues: "This misunderstanding is reflected, in part, in yet another reaction to the announcement -- the 'but we've worked so hard on this' reaction. The Kyoto Protocol, itself the product of years of international negotiations over climate change, has resulted in more years of negotiations over implementation. Whenever a regulation or reform gets kicked around long enough, it develops a constituency and a kind of momentum that makes it appear inevitable to those most invested in it."

The newspaper says: "Of course, the irony of all the wailing and gnashing of teeth is that Kyoto was never likely to be more than an expensive but futile gesture anyway. Even climate-change alarmists have acknowledged that Kyoto was never going to make much of a difference." It concludes: "Mr. Bush has struck a blow for economic sanity and there will be no cost whatsoever to the quality of the environment."


The "Wall Street Journal Europe"'s ally in approval of the Bush action is Britain's "Times" daily. The "Times" headlines its editorial, "The K (for Kyoto) Word." The paper says: "International treaties [too often] are the product of the desire to avoid a breakdown of a conference by reaching a deal -- any deal -- even if this means papering over disagreement."

The editorial says of the Kyoto Protocol: "The United States was unhappy with the treaty then [in 1997], has never been reconciled to its lopsided treatment of industrialized and developing countries and was never going to ratify it as it stood."

The paper goes on: "[The announcement in Washington] has been greeted in Britain and the European Union with horror and surprise. But it is no surprise, and they know it." It concludes: "The K word must not be made an obstacle to action. The White House insists that the president does care about global warming and wants to work out a plan involving all nations, rich and poor. The EU should take him at his word. If it does, it will find allies in America. Hysterical righteousness will find none."