European Affairs

Why Bush's "No" to Kyoto Vexed Europe     Print Email
Bret Stephens

Editorial Writer, The Wall Street Journal Europe

What accounts for the overwhelmingly hostile reaction in Europe to President George W. Bush's decision this spring to reject the Kyoto Protocol on climate change?

On receipt of the news, British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott spoke of putting his country's special relationship with the United States into "deep freeze;" French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin denounced Washington for "a serious unilateral act;" and the subject was top of the agenda during German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's first visit to the Bush White House.


One has to go back to the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration moved to deploy Pershing and cruise missiles in Europe, to find an instance of U.S. policymaking that provoked a comparable European reaction.

But there is an important difference. Whereas the missile deployments, implemented with the consent of Europe's political leaders, elicited mass protest, the Kyoto decision has met resistance chie§y in government circles.

Indeed, while Mr. Bush met with the usual demonstrators during his first presidential visit to Europe, there was nothing like the outpouring of millions so common two decades ago - and Kyoto was just one item of several on the protestors' agenda.

This is not to say that the majority of Europeans were indifferent to, or happy with, Mr. Bush's decision. But it is hard to know for sure. A recent poll shows that Americans believe global warming is happening by a margin of three to one and that a 55 percent majority endorse the goals of the Kyoto Protocol, though many are unwilling to pay the price in higher energy taxes.

I know of no similar poll of European views on climate change. On essentially no evidence, the average European is simply taken to be more pro-Kyoto, and more willing to make personal sacrifices on its behalf, than the average American.

Also revealing was the response of key European decision makers to Mr. Bush's action. So far, EU leaders have put on a brave face regarding their commitment to Kyoto, pledging at the recent EU summit at Gothenburg, Sweden, to ratify the Protocol unilaterally if necessary. But this only leads one to ask why they have so conspicuously failed to do so already.

The reality remains that Italy, France, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Greece have all exceeded their CO2-emissions targets, some by almost 100 percent. And for all the hortatory gestures, there is a widespread fear in Europe that unilaterally adopting the Protocol, and imposing the expensive regulatory regime and infrastructure changes needed to meet its goals, would simply hand the United States further competitive advantages without realizing any environmental benefits.

In other words, the depth of Europe's commitment to the Kyoto Protocol may be rather less than is suggested by the intensity of the reaction to Mr. Bush's decision. So why the hostility? And why, indeed, from precisely those people best positioned to know that U.S. ratification of Kyoto has been a nonstarter ever since the U.S. Senate rejected the treaty 95-0 in 1997?

There are several answers. Central is the fundamentally symbolic nature of much of what passes for policy at the pan-European level. As often as not, the political purposes of European leaders are better served in the espousal of a policy than in its implementation. Pushing something from the national level to Brussels - immigration policy, for instance - is a good way both to elevate a political commitment and to dodge it.

Even better is to transfer responsibility for some unpleasant decision to Washington. "It gives you a moral position, a high ground to make yourself look good compared to others," notes Guillaume Parmentier of the Center for the United States at the French Institute for International Relations.

For Europe's leading center-left politicians, the Kyoto Protocol was exactly the kind of thing they had no choice but to embrace and every reason to run from. Having been bruised by last September's remarkably vehement fuel-tax protests in Britain, France and Belgium, the center-left is unlikely to look with enthusiasm on the idea of raising gas taxes by another 25 percent, as may be required to meet Kyoto Protocol targets.

Yet many of these same politicians also have to address the interests of their Green Party coalition members, for whom the Kyoto Protocol is of paramount ideological importance. The answer may be to champion Kyoto in the knowledge that it's a dead letter, then loudly denounce the United States when it furnishes the perfect alibi for abandoning the treaty.

Perhaps this seems too cynical. It is no doubt true that the environmentalist leaders who have championed the Kyoto goals from the beginning are sincere in their beliefs, and they do have a substantial following.

Nonetheless, it is worth recalling that at the sixth "Conference of Parties" meeting in The Hague last November, the outgoing Clinton administration made a good faith effort at compromise, provided Europeans would accept so-called "carbon sinks" - greenhouse-gas absorbers such as forests and crops - in calculating total greenhouse-gas emissions. European governments refused.

Given this, one is tempted to ask whether they insisted on a maximalist position precisely in order to avoid a compromise, and therefore a commitment.

It is also noteworthy that the conference took place in The Hague against the backdrop of a likely victory for Mr. Bush in the aftermath of the presidential election. Already Mr. Bush had been widely caricatured in the European press as the quintessential ugly American: ignorant of world affairs, probably stupid, isolationist-minded, a notorious polluter and a puppet of corporate interests.

By rejecting Kyoto, the former oilman merely confirmed the stereotype. He was, wrote Frank McDonald, environment editor at the Irish Times, the "loyal mouthpiece" of the "fossil fuel interests, which have most to lose from [the Kyoto Protocol's] ratification."

Anti-Americanism has been gathering steam in Europe for some time. Until recently it was held in check, at the political level at least, by the consonance between Bill Clinton's New Democrat politics and the ascendancy of the so-called Third Way in Europe. The arrival of a conservative Republican in Washington eliminated that tie, while the decision on Kyoto "aggravated a mixture of grudges that have gnawed at Europeans for years," as Edmund Andrews of The New York Times observes.

According to Mr. Andrews, Europeans are "angry the United States appears oblivious to widespread environmental concerns across most of Europe;" "frustrated that the United States, by virtue of its size, can undermine a treaty that was negotiated by more than 100 countries;" and "most of all . . . depressed that there is not much they can do about it."

This analysis seems lacking in one significant respect. Mr. Bush's rejection of Kyoto may have underlined Europe's impotence in world affairs. But it also handed European leaders a considerable moral victory - one reason, perhaps, that they were so provocatively vocal in their criticism of the new American president.

In past years, European governments tended to air their differences with the United States through elliptical public statements coupled with discreet diplomatic messages. But the world situation has changed, and Europe is seeking a more prominent role.

As Mr. Jospin's June speech on the future of the European Union made clear, some people want Europe to define itself in the international arena largely in contradistinction to the United States. This applies not only to environmental stewardship, but also to defense policy, antitrust regulation, rules governing financial disclosure, policy toward the Middle East and North Korea, and so on.

Europe's indignation over Mr. Bush's rejection of Kyoto must therefore be viewed as being of a piece with its broader efforts to assert itself as a major power in the world. "If one wants to be a world leader, one must know how to look after the entire earth and not only American industry," says EU Commission President Romano Prodi. The implicit contrast with Europe is unmistakable.

Where do things go from here? There seems to be little chance of European states meeting their Kyoto targets, although there's been much wishful thinking that they can. True, according to the most recent report of the EU environmental council, the EU has collectively managed to bring down emissions from 1990 levels by four percent - fully half of what Kyoto requires of them.

But these reductions come principally from just two countries, Britain and Germany, which have achieved these results less by enlightened energy policies than by shutting down the old coal-burning industries of the former East Germany and the Midlands.

These are advantages that can only be reaped once. It is significant that France, which long ago switched from coal to nuclear power, has been unable to make any headway in CO2-emissions reductions.

Meanwhile, the rest of Europe is moving in a different direction. In Spain, the government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has §atly refused to sign up to an EU petrol-tax harmonization plan considered essential for meeting Kyoto targets. For him, economic considerations come first. And Germany has recently decided to phase out nuclear power, leading to certain increases in CO2 emissions.

None of which is to suggest that the issue of Kyoto will go away anytime soon. Though the strength of Europe's Green parties seems to have peaked, they will almost certainly remain coalition members in several European governments, most importantly in Germany.

The Green view is also represented at the EU level through the Commission's Environment Directorate-General, whose well-liked commissioner, Margot Wallstroem, shows no sign of giving up on Kyoto. In this she has the vehement support of the innumerable environmental lobbies, which in the absence of greater democratic representation, pass for civil society in the Brussels ambit.

There is also the fact that the EU is very much a consensus-driven machine, and part of the way it maintains consensus is by pretending there is no con§ict between its various positions. Thus one rarely hears in Europe, as one does constantly in the United States, that adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, even in tandem with the United States, could wreck all hope of creating the dynamic economy envisioned at last year's Lisbon summit.

Instead, both ambitions are proclaimed with equal fervor, and both become the focus of separate bureaucracies that fight for turf in ingenious and petty ways. As a result, the Kyoto goals are both buried and institutionalized, now to come forward, now to retreat, depending on the political winds.

Finally, there is a problem with the media in Europe, which has tended to represent Kyoto as the only possible solution to global warming, without really exploring the pros and cons of the agreement. Few European citizens - and probably even fewer European politicians - are aware that there may be alternative solutions to global warming, much less what those solutions are.

This has made it easy to caricature Mr. Bush's decision as just another instance of American greed. But it has put other creative solutions to global warming further out of reach.

Still, it remains possible that Europeans may decide to take what they can get from the Bush administration at the July conference on climate change in Bonn, perhaps agreeing to the demands made by the United States in The Hague in November. Some European countries, notably the Netherlands, have begun taking a market-based approach to global warming, installing wind-power capacities in Poland and the Czech Republic to earn "pollution credits."

The headlines at the recent Gothenburg summit suggested the EU and the U.S. got no farther than to "agree to disagree." At the same time, however, the Bush administration has been signaling its intention to treat global warming as a real problem. So perhaps common ground might be found after all. In the past, Europeans have learned to work with American presidents whose early acts in office unsettled previous patterns, just as U.S. administrations have learned to adapt to shifts in EU policy. It seems unlikely that Transatlantic relations in the Bush years will be any different.

But for the time being, Mr. Bush's decision offers Europeans just too good an opportunity to score points against the United States. The fun will last a while.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number III in the Summer of 2001.