A recent New York Times article — “Trying to Reclaim Leadership on Climate Change” — reports the longstanding indifference toward climate change. In fact, President Obama’s proposal of new rules to cut emissions at power plants makes him one of the few political leaders with a serious agenda on the issue. However, even Mr. Obama’s noble attempt will remain futile if the rest of the world is unwilling to follow suit. With the ineffectiveness at recent protocols, it is worth comparing two protocols to determine how to address the issue going forward and why Mr. Obama is trying to reclaim leadership on the issue.
- When: September 16, 1987
- Where: Montreal, Canada
- Issue: Depletion of the ozone layer and Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)
- Successful?: Yes
With the discovery that certain substances, notably CFCs, were rapidly depleting the ozone layer, many nations sought to solve the issue but recognized that this issue transcended every individual border. Since the ozone layer belongs to all nations not simply one, it was the responsibility of all nations to address the pressing issue. Thus, as a multilateral force, they concocted a plan to slow the depletion of the ozone layer so it could recover. As stated, the protocol would phase-out CFCs from commercial production, particularly in the aerosol industry. And it has worked!
Considered a major multilateral success, the Montreal Protocol is persistently touted as the prime example of how well nations can work together on global environmental issues. But why was it successful? The Montreal Protocol had the perfect combination of factors: hegemons (U.S. and U.K.) taking the lead, a short timeframe before the ozone was projected to dissolve, a great mutuality of interests among the attending parties, and concentrated benefits with distributed costs. Due to all of these factors, 197 parties have already ratified the protocol, making it the poster child for a successful multilateral operation on environmental regulation.
- When: December 11, 1997
- Where: Kyoto, Japan
- Issue: Anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
- Successful?: No
Attempting to ride the success of Montreal, nations reconvened to address another environmental matter: anthropogenic GHG emissions causing climate change. However, this time the result was not so successful, for a few reasons. First of all, the major hegemons were hesitant to take the lead, as limiting carbon emissions could severely harm industries and make energy prices very expensive. Second, since there was no general consensus as to when climate change would occur, who or what caused it, and how drastic the effects were going to be, many parties shied from ratifying a protocol that could potentially not offer any ecological benefit. Third, a carbon cap would hinder developing economies that were just now going through their own industrial revolutions more so than nations with already developed economies, resulting in a discordance of interests. Finally, because every nation would be sacrificing economic growth for uncertain environmental security, each nation would bear concentrated costs with diffused benefits. Nevertheless, 55 nations ratified the protocol, committing to reduce carbon emissions 5 percent by 2010 and 10 percent by 2020. However, CBC news confirmed the failure of Kyoto, citing a 58 percent increase in emissions within the past decade.
U.S. Policy Going Forward
Clearly, Montreal was much more successful than Kyoto for a variety of reasons. With the success in Montreal and other protocols attempting to address the issues raised by Kyoto, Obama proposed domestic rules to limit carbon emission in the United States. Whether or not his policy will curb climate change is up for debate. However, Obama recognizes that if another multilateral environmental success is to occur in the future, the United States must take the lead to ensure that others. Additionally, the U.S. must offer incentives for other nations to also commit to the same goals. Without the support of other nations, Obama’s proposal will result in substantial economic costs with minimal ecological benefits.
Tanner Davis is a research associate at the National Center for Policy Analysis.