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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Climate Change Treaties Warming Up

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood has a frank conversation with Harvard University Professor Rob Stavins about what positions President Clinton's advisors are likely recommending he take on the eve of upcoming global treaties. Prof. Stavins has consulted with both the Bush and Clinton administrations, and is an economist who heads the program in Environment and Natural Resources at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
There may never have been as complex or confusing a set of issues to negotiate than the international efforts to address human-induced global warming. Science, technology, diplomacy, and economic perspectives all play a role. As do intense dynamics of competition and equity. So not surprisingly, even though global warming talks have been going on for more than 5 years, the United States has yet to take a position. But it must decide soon. In less than 60 days, an agreement with binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions is to be signed in Kyoto, Japan. And before then, by October 20th, the US needs to announce its position at a preparatory conference in Bonn, Germany. Part of the problem is that President Clinton's own advisors are sharply split. Robert Stavins has consulted with both the Bush and Clinton Administrations on environmental policy. Professor Stavins is an economist who heads the program in environment and natural resources at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. And I asked him what the President's advisors are recommending.

STAVINS: There's a range of perspectives, Steve, within the Administration, that actually reflects the range of perspectives that exist among the population as a whole in the United States. On the one hand, there is certainly the environmental community, and those people in general who'd like to be aggressive on global climate change, and they are certainly reflected in the Administration, those that are sympathetic to that view. And they would favor the target, essentially, that comes from the Berlin mandate, of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2010 to their 1990 levels. Which is approximately a reduction, it's believed, it'll be of about 20 to 25% of what they would otherwise be. Combined with that, those same individuals in the Administration, and I think in the country, would also favor the United States going it alone, if necessary, or certainly the United States cooperating with the other industrialized countries, and not worrying about whether or not the non-industrialized countries and the developing countries of the world participate. On the other hand, abroad in the land there are representatives from the business community, again reflected in parties within the Administration, who would favor much less ambitious goals. Partly because of the cost of achieving those goals and also because of perhaps skepticism regarding the benefits of trying to do something about the problem. Furthermore, those same people favor the United States participating in agreement only if it is broadly based, including really the developing countries.

CURWOOD: So where is the President on this? I mean, it sounds like he's getting competing advice. He said in his recent conference that he had people squabbling in his office for an hour and a half the other day about this issue. How is he going to decide? I mean, he's got to say something in what? It's less than 60 days.

STAVINS: Well, at the White House climate change conference recently, the President enunciated 4 principles, and I think if you look at those 4 principles and to some degree read between the lines, you can see where some agreement is already emerging, and areas where agreement could conceivably emerge in the future.

CURWOOD: Okay, tell me where there's one good piece of agreement.

STAVINS: Well, that one good piece of agreement is that any policies that the United States adopts ought to be cost effective and they ought to be flexible.


STAVINS: So that we achieve whatever the targets are at minimum cost to the economy.

CURWOOD: What's the best case scenario here? What's the worst case scenario? How costly could it be?

STAVINS: If one is asking how much could it cost to meet the target from the Berlin mandate of reducing emissions by the year 2010 to the 1990 level, then I think the mean estimate for most economic analysis is something like 3% of Gross National Product. Now, it could be higher and it could be less. Could it be as high as 5 or 6%? Yes. Could there be tragedies that it would look like the Great Depression? No. Okay. Could it very well look like the same kind of impacts as we had with the so-called oil crises in previous periods? Yes. That kind of economic impact. Best-case scenario is probably falling somewhat below that, but I'm not even sure what the sound ones would be.

CURWOOD: Mm hm. Where do you think, at the end of all this, we're going to come out?

STAVINS: I think that it's reasonable to anticipate that the United States is going to take a position which builds upon the notion that the science on this is real. Okay. The President has stated that. He's reiterated that several times. Secondly, I think the United States is going to go forward with a proposal which suggests that the goals need to be realistic. The United States is clearly not sympathetic to the European Union proposal or even the Japanese proposal, not only because of the level of the goals, but because of the fact that they're not insisting on broad participation. Third, I think it is unquestionably the case, and the President has stated this on several occasions, that we will propose internationally and for domestic implementation purposes to use cost-effective, flexible, market-based approaches. Now, because the President has also gone on record as saying that he will not propose taxes, knowing as he does quite correctly that those would be a complete non-starter in this Congress as they probably would have been even in previous Congresses, that does suggest that elements of something like a tradable permit system, the other market-based approach will be there. Finally, the country will go forward with the proposal that I think is going to be a credible proposal. What is not needed is a proposal that puts us on the moral high ground but we know will not be ratified in the United States, or we know that other countries could not agree to it. I mean, that seems to me a very, very cynical approach for this Administration or anyone to take, and I'm happy to say that I don't believe the Administration will take that approach, although some forces actually would like it to.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time. Robert Stavins is professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Thank you, sir.

STAVINS: Thank you.



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