When the idiotic Kyoto Protocol was put before the US Senate, 95 senators voted against this confused and destructive initiative on the grounds that, as designed, the measure would simply ship American jobs to China and other countries without reducing greenhouse gasses.
For years, green activists have mourned and bemoaned the shortsightedness of the US. How could we sit out from something so noble, so planet saving, so wise as the sacred Kyoto Protocol? We have been listening to the green moral scolds for twenty years: those fat, dumb and ignorant Americans are simply too stupid and too selfish to save Planet Earth.
The EU, where disingenuous politicians are forced to demagogue green issues because addlepated proportional representation rules empower the lunatic eco-fringe in key countries, ratified Kyoto, and Americans were then treated to years of vainglorious Euro-puffery about the nobility, the wisdom and the self-sacrificial idealism of the cutting edge eco-warriors of the Green Continent.
The Kyoto climate change conference, December 1997 (Credit: UN Photo)
Over the years, some of the Kyoto fairy dust had begun to wear off. Global greenhouse emissions did not in fact appear to be declining very much. Many of the EU cuts were accounting tricks; counting the closure of inefficient, money-losing industrial dinosaurs in East Germany that were doomed to close anyway towards Germany’s greenhouse targets was a fairly typical example.
But a couple of recent studies now seem to show that Kyoto was as big a fraud as the most militant enviro-skeptics ever suspected. And it looks as if the 95 American senators were 100 percent right: the much heralded Protocol was a singularly stupid piece of counterproductive social engineering that encouraged the migration of good jobs to China and other low wage countries — without helping the environment at all.
The left leaning Guardian newspaper in Britain let the cat out of the bag yesterday, reporting that while the EU’s emission of CO2 declined by 17% between 1990 and 2010, this apparent progress was bogus. If you add up the CO2 released by the goods and services Europeans consumed, as opposed to the CO2 thrown off by the goods and services they produced, the EU was responsible for 40% more CO2 in 2010 than in 1990. The EU, as the Guardian puts it, has been outsourcing pollution — and jobs — rather than cutting back on greenhouse gasses.
EU “progress” on greenhouse gasses in the last twenty years was a mirage. And the only reason that the EU can pretend to look green is that it was outsourcing economic growth to countries like China. Those 95 US senators were totally right; twenty years of the Kyoto Protocol have brought the world twenty years of rising greenhouse gas emissions and twenty years of job migration to low wage, low regulation havens in the Third World.
It is extremely rare for 95 US senators to be right about anything; it is not, unfortunately, rare for environmentalists to come up with grotesquely bad policy ideas. Worse, it is routine for the media to give those grotesquely dumb ideas uncritical support. For twenty years, the mainstream media has (with a few noble exceptions like the New York Times‘ Andrew Revkin) largely repeated green propaganda as straight news. How many irreplaceable acres (or, for our European friends, hectares) of vital, carbon fixing forest have been destroyed to print editorials and columns hailing the intellectual and moral grandeur of the Kyoto Protocol and denouncing the know-nothingism and short-sightedness of the Neanderthals who dared to oppose it?
Almost any bad idea from a ‘respectable’ green source — like the monumentally foolish drive for a Grand Global Treaty that derailed so spectacularly at Copenhagen last year — gets a free ride from most of the mainstream media and also the mainstream intellectual establishment. The syllogism seems to be this: the environment is good, X says that Y is good for the environment, therefore Y must be good. The fallacy is painfully obvious when put in this form, but painfully obvious doesn’t seem to be obvious enough for most of the world’s pundits and editorial writers.
People who care about the environment, who worry about the potential harm that our increasingly technological civilization can do to the natural systems on which we all depend, are making a literally planet-threatening mistake when they fail to subject policy proposals to serious analysis and critique because those proposals are labeled ‘green’. I don’t know what it will take to get this simple lesson through the surprisingly thick heads of the chattering classes. How many times do widely hailed, ritualistically praised and endorsed green policy initiatives have to go down in flames before the press realizes that the way to help the environment is to subject such proposals to critical scrutiny before they flop?
How long will it be before serious people who seriously care about the environment realize that the clowns, poseurs and hotheads currently shaping the movement’s public agenda constitute a grave and urgent threat to the health of the only planet we’ve got?
How high a price must the world pay for green folly? How many years will be lost, how much credibility forfeited, how much money wasted before we have an environmental movement that has the intellectual rigor, political wisdom and mature, sober judgment needed to address the great issues we face?
Fulfilling our duty as good stewards of the bountiful garden in which the good Lord has placed us is hard. The science is hard. The politics, the economics, the diplomacy: they are all hard. Even the morals are hard. The relationship between natural systems and human activity is complex and, despite all the scientific progress that has been made, important aspects of the relationship remain poorly understood. The forces — economic, political, cultural — that shape human industrial and economic activity are also very complex, and important dimensions of their interactions remain extremely poorly understood. The international political system is not very flexible and not very powerful, and the political forces that define the limits of the possible in the world’s different countries are difficult to understand and virtually impossible to predict as circumstances and extraneous variables constantly intrude into the already turbulent mix.
There are irreducible unknowns in the mix. Should we allocate scarce economic and political resources toward climate change or toward nuclear disarmament? Should we allocate those resources toward raising the living standards of the poor, perhaps reducing the threat of terrorism and war — or toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions, thereby perhaps creating more favorable conditions for solving these other problems down the road? What new knowledge and new possibilities — and new dangers — will come on line as new and unpredictable technological innovations appear?
Environmentalists, motivated no doubt in many cases by a genuine sense of urgency, have fallen into a pattern of overlooking and assuming away complexities and difficulties to build public support for catchy, headline grabbing Big Ideas. But those complexities and difficulties are real and in the end they emerge and wreak a horrid revenge. The Kyoto Protocol failed; the Copenhagen Summit failed; the entire global treaty movement continues to plumb new depths of failure from week to week; cap and trade went down to ignominious and even toxic defeat.
Environmentalists will only be able to help the world when they grow up. And they will only grow up when the rest of the world — and especially the mainstream press and serious writers and thinkers — start holding them to serious, grown up standards. Screwy but superficially appealing ideas like the Kyoto Protocol should be mercilessly criticized and all their flawed assumptions and wishful thinking be held up for the whole world to see — when they are first proposed and debated, not after twenty years of uncritical praise ending in failure. The green agenda and the environmental movement are victims of ‘social promotion’; their self esteem has been stoked and their grades inflated — and nobody has ever explained the hard facts of life, or equipped them with the skills needed for actual, as opposed to virtual, success.
Tough love is now the only way to help the greens: we must challenge the greens, mock their uncritical embrace of dumb ideas, point out their failures, their pretensions, their wishful thinking, their political blindness, their clueless arrogance and all the other shortcomings that lead them, time and time again, down the Good Intentions Highway to the same old Great Abyss. The way to hurt them is to tell them it isn’t their fault, to ignore the movement’s stunning record of serial failure, to blame the oil companies for all that is wrong with the world — and to do all the other comforting, enabling things that help keep people and political movements infantilized and ineffective.
Fortunately, the Guardian newspaper and a handful of writers like Rivkin seem to understand the need for serious reporting. The cascade of green failure is going to waken a critical spirit more widely; failure this flagrant becomes progressively harder to ignore. One suspects (indeed one hopes) that the money spigots will turn off for a while; even foundations sometimes weary of throwing good money after bad. That will also lead to some badly needed soul searching among the incompetent green pooh-bahs who have done so little with so much.
The green movement is still very young by historical standards. It is not yet time to give up the hope that it can someday grow into a solid and useful world citizen, its youthful freaks and follies left behind. But for that to happen, its friends are going to have to administer some very serious doses of tough love.
Walter Russell Mead is James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and Editor-at-Large of The American Interest magazine, and is recognized as one of the USA's leading students of American foreign policy.