Have no illusions about it. From the beginning, the international battles over global climate change have been intertwined with economics. And now, in the latest phase of the global warming saga - how to control greenhouse-gas emissions in an age of global markets - the issue remains economic: Who will gain and who will lose if governments agree on a new treaty that imposes specific timetables on countries to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases?
The strategic goal ought to be clear: to curb the rising concentrations of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, that many scientists say contribute to shifts in weather patterns. The vehicle to accomplish this must be an action plan acceptable to a broad consensus of industrial and developing countries. How best to arrive at such a plan is a more political matter.
International talks aimed at reaching a global climate treaty will be held over the next nine months. Constructive steps that involve participation by all nations, not just industrial countries, should be considered now.
For the United States, the danger is that developing countries will not be required to do anything about reducing emissions. Their output would overwhelm reductions made by industrial nations - just the opposite of what a new treaty is supposed to achieve. The fact is, developing countries, as a group, will produce the majority of greenhouse emissions in future years.
According to the International Energy Agency, as much as 85 percent of the projected increase in man-made global emissions of carbon dioxide will come from developing countries and emerging economies in Eastern Europe.
What's more, these countries will have an economic incentive to refuse to agree to future greenhouse gas reductions. For example, as its share of industrial output rises, China would become the world's largest source of carbon dioxide, emitting nearly double the amount the US emits and more than triple what Western Europe produces.
Yet the Clinton administration has agreed to a proposed treaty that places binding commitments on industrial nations but none on developing countries. Even such economic powerhouses as Korea and Singapore would be let off the hook, while the US would be held to legally binding targets, timetables, and common measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions beyond the year 2000. These restrictions would commit us to a 15 to 20 percent reduction within about 10 years. The assumption is that industrial countries would use carbon taxation to meet the goals, making energy consumption much more expensive.
US at a disadvantage
No matter how the plan finally emerges, what must be avoided is a treaty that places the United States at a competitive disadvantage. Measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective. Jobs and livelihoods are at stake.
Although President Clinton has spoken eloquently about the need to stop the transfer of American jobs to foreign economies, the US would take an unnecessary economic beating from such a treaty, and working people would suffer the most. If developed nations act alone to reduce emissions, the huge cost imposed on energy-intensive industries will result in the export of much of their industrial base to countries with less stringent controls. Most heavy industry in the US would feel the economic effects of a carbon tax, but particularly hard hit would be automobile manufacturing, oil refineries, coal mining, steel, and petrochemicals.
The cost in dollars, as well as in lost jobs, would be staggering. William Nordhaus of Yale University estimates that the price tag on restricting greenhouse emissions in the United States could reach $7 trillion.
This does not mean that we should hope for the best and do nothing about reducing greenhouse emissions. Much has already been achieved. The US contribution of man-made carbon dioxide emissions has significantly declined over the past two decades and will continue to decline, thanks to advances in more energy-efficient technologies.
Share the technology
Developing nations will also need better technologies, and they can take meaningful action if they choose to. Efforts should be directed at exporting advanced power systems to countries like China and India so they can begin to stabilize their emissions, without depriving them of an opportunity for economic growth.
Spreading the responsibility globally, possibly through an emissions trading system among all countries, would lower the cost substantially. At the very least, Congress should do much more than simply wait to see what the international negotiating process brings.
* Mary L. Walker was formerly the assistant secretary for Environment, Safety, and Health for the US Department of Energy.