Stick with Kyoto

A Sound Start on Global Warming

Wall of paintings outside the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Montreal, Canada, November 30, 2005. Christinne Muschi / Reuters

In his critique of the recent Kyoto accord, Richard N. Cooper notes that mitigating climate change will not be easy ("Toward a Real Global Warming Treaty," March/April 1998). He argues that allocating greenhouse gas emissions rights among nations, especially in the developing world, is impractical. Since economists' favorite solution to problems such as emissions is to tax the offending activity, he concludes that a more practical solution would be to have all countries agree on a common carbon emissions tax.

Cooper is right about one thing -- fighting global warming will not be easy. Setting differentiated emissions targets among countries with widely diverse histories and national circumstances will be especially difficult. Indeed, Kyoto is one of those ideas that can easily be criticized -- until you consider the other options. Cooper's alternative is to create an international obligation to impose energy taxes. But his belief that agreeing on such a tax might be easier than setting emissions targets is out of touch with political reality. Even if it could be arranged, an international obligation to tax emissions could not be expected to work well.


Cooper, one of my predecessors in my current position, is skeptical about global warming, referring to it as an "alleged problem." But the matter is serious indeed and requires a concerted international response. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas, are currently about 30 percent above pre industrial levels. Unless we change course, concentrations in 2100 are predicted to reach levels not seen in more than 50 million years.

The authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), composed of 2,500 scientists worldwide, warns that global warming will harm human health and cause significant loss of life. Potential problems include a rise in the sea level, the spread of infectious diseases, droughts, and floods. For a preview of the type of severe weather in the warmer, wetter world that climate change would bring, look at the devastation wrought by this winter's El Nino. Without policy intervention, the IPCC warns

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