By William Urban

It has become an article of faith among environmentalists that the Kyoto Protocols are essential to saving the planet. I, on the other hand, agree with the Senate, which 95-0 refused to consider it after Bill Clinton said it was such a good deal.

The essence of the treaty is that big polluters have to cut back their destructive activities, while some countries stay as before, and poor countries have no obligations except to benefit from the technological progress made by rich countries. Each country had one vote. In a world where poor countries outnumber rich ones (the reasons for which is not brought into question) and where Europeans are lumped in the category of doing well enough, one can see how the Kyoto Protocols came to be aimed right at the USA.

Europe gets to count its trees for absorbing CO2, the US doesn’t. Asians can burn all the trees they want (you should see the satellite photos of smoke from Indonesian slash and burn farming) and China’s cities can be as hard on the lungs as Mexico City, but American cities get blamed. I saw Los Angeles in the Fifties. The air pollution was horrible — a yellowish gaze covered everything. LA is a lot bigger now, with many more cars, but where are those pictures of a city dying from smog?

In short, we have made progress in some areas. No doubt the environmentalists’ activities are responsible for some of this. But it’s a fact of human nature that when responses fail to resolve a problem completely or when the public doesn’t pay sufficient attention, the warnings became more shrill and terrifying.

No one personifies this better than Al Gore; years ago I read his book, in which he said that the internal combustion engine had to go. Certainly, he had a point. With California leading the way, we now have stricter emissions standards. Today gasoline-powered lawn mowers are targeted there, and backyard barbeques. Probably we will all either go electric or return to the old-fashioned reel mowers. I’ve tried mowing my lawn with both, and my conclusion is that they are entirely suitable for small yards. Not for mine.

Similarly, we are working on better automobiles. Better mileage is most easily obtained by making lighter cars. Still, when I sent my children off to college, I felt better when they were driving the equivalent of a tank. Two of my children driving small cars had them totaled in low speed collisions. In one case the other car was not damaged, in the other the deer died.

In short, trade offs. One advantage of smaller cars beyond better gas mileage is that they are easier to park; yet another is that they encourage small families. We noticed in Italy thirty years ago the impact of both on family size — a ‘cinquecento’ could hold four people (if two were small children) and four people (if all were adults) could lift it into a parking space. The East German ‘Trabi’ was a lawn tractor without the blades. As for pollution, socialist East Germany (a ‘people’s democracy’) was as worse than any place I’ve ever been. In Communist Poland I was told that the government wouldn’t allow anything that hurt ‘the people’. This as we stood in front of a large pipe pouring red liquid into the Vistula River. The policy, they explained, was to make private ownership of automobiles so difficult that everyone would use public transportation. And they were surprised that the public eventually threw them out of power.

We do better than that. Right outside Monmouth Monsanto is working on ways to use fewer chemical fertilizers and dyes. Local farmers have already modified their practices. This should remind us that a better environment is not about CO2 alone. The quality of life for humans, plants and animals alike is also important.

We must resist being panicked into actions that will have little impact except on our economy. The Kyoto Protocols never promised to reverse climate change, only to slow it slightly. Moreover, the nations that criticize the US most are not meeting their own modest goals. Kyoto is a political agenda, an economic agenda and a feel-good agenda, not a serious response to the situation.

The recent UN report scales back earlier predictions and says that scientists are 90% sure that the one degree rise since 1900 is due to human activity. Lord Christopher Monckton says that this downwardly revised prediction is still twice too high. It’s all based on models, anyway; you change one variable and you can’t be certain what the result will be — add ethanol to American gas and Mexicans riot over the increase in tortilla prices. The ‘hockey stick’ graph has vanished.

There is much we can do, and will do. If it is a question of how much money we should spend to have very little impact, then we should always remember to keep the two connected. Buy a bicycle, add a solar collector, but keep your day job.

It’s your day job that will pay the taxes necessary to take the steps the environmentalists are advocating.

Review Atlas (Feb 17, 2007), 4.