The Kyoto agreement rests on forecasts of future greenhouse gas emissions. But energy use, which requires the burning of fossil fuels, depends on economic growth and prosperity. Economists aren’t soothsayers: they often over‐ or underestimate growth, and they can’t be expected to discern how technological advances will change fossil fuel consumption.
Indeed, many climate models — which remain unreliable — predict that most of the climate change will occur many decades from now — the forecasted increase of 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit won’t happen for a century. It’s impossible to have any confidence in forecasts of the technology, population or energy sources of 2098. We can predict, however, that future generations will have better technology at their disposal, that they will be wealthier, and that they will live longer. They will certainly be in a better position to deal with adverse climate changes than we are today.
The Clinton administration had difficulty deciding what it could accept at Kyoto. Its quandary was magnified by the projected failure of the United States to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Rather than cutting them, a booming economy appears likely to boost emissions of carbon dioxide by at least 15 percent in this decade. Cutting emissions enough to prevent climate change, which might require slashing emissions by some 60 percent, seems out of reach. Avoiding a warmer world would require a radical curbing of emissions by all countries, which in turn would lead to a worldwide slowdown in growth, perhaps even a depression that might make the 1930s look like Disneyland on a good day.
The Kyoto agreement is futile. Even Bert Bolin, the former chairman of the United Nations’ body of experts on global warming, says that the present plan would, if fully implemented, cut warming a quarter century from now “by less than 0.1 degree C, which would not be detectable.” We are plunging into a treaty that creates gigantic obligations without examining its costs and benefits. Congress has demanded that the Clinton administration provide estimates of the costs, but none have been forthcoming.