political revue


Year XLIV, 2002, Number 1, Page 26



In 1992 in Rio the Earth Summit set the aim of reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels, to begin to ease the climatic impact of human activity. After ten years this target is quite far from being reached. Firstly because the industrialized countries — the United States, the European Union member countries, and Japan — have continued to increase their carbon dioxide emissions, one of the gases that most contributes to the greenhouse effect.[1] Secondly because there was no involvement of developing countries in the climate defence front . This is despite the Kyoto protocol, signed by over a hundred countries in 1997, fixing ecological convergence criteria and a deadline for the stabilization of atmospheric pollutants by 2012.[2] At present the situation is this. As far as the developing countries are concerned, China (the second biggest world greenhouse gas polluter) and India have not pledged to carry out any reduction. Russia, that according to the protocol was allowed to increase its own emissions, has highlighted how the slowing down of economic development is not an acceptable price to pay socially and politically to stop pollution. Japan, where not even the slowing down of economic growth was enough to allow re-entry to within the pollution limits set in Kyoto, is finding emissions reduction a problem. In the European Union, where on average the emissions reduction demanded for all member countries is about five per cent, the targets to be reached differ from country to country and no continental policy is expected. The USA, lastly, have made things even more uncertain, openly denouncing the failure of the Kyoto protocol and proposing a national plan for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that has thrown perplexity on its effectiveness and doubts on the will of the American government to continue to cooperate at the international level in order to reduce the risks of climate change.
Finally neither the engagements undertaken in Rio, nor those confirmed in Kyoto, have produced the desired effects. The age of ever tighter international cooperation even in the environmental field inaugurated in the Eighties by Reagan and Gorbachev, to be funded with the dividends of the end of the cold war, seems to be ending. Why? What are the chances of restoring a suitable international framework of cooperation for tackling the serious problems brought by increasing ecological imbalances?
Politics and Climatic Risk.
Observations on the changes to the climate are highlighting two factors. The first is that no significant reduction, not even of half the quantity of carbon dioxide introduced into the atmosphere, would allow humanity to return to an equilibrium comparable to that of before 1850. The second is the uncertainty of the available models for carrying out climate change predictions.
1. Climatologists have established that, since the mid Nineteenth Century, the planet has entered a new warm age after the small ice age that governed climatic cycles for almost five centuries. How and to what extent man’s activity has influences and is able to influence the evolution of this new age is not clear. The fact remains that we have entered into an age of climate changes, accelerated or emphasized by man, that are destined to alter cycles of production, habits and lifestyles in many regions of the world. Historically they are situations that humanity has already faced and that have caused crises in some activities or regions and good fortune in others.[3] In fact rarely has humanity experienced long periods of climatic stability: even in well defined climatic ages, warmer and colder decades have been alternating due to unpredictable phenomena (volcanic eruptions, solar activity etc.). But since the start of the industrial age, the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been so much as to be considered, by experts, to be the main cause of the anomalous temperature increase with respect to natural variations. If this is true, humanity faces a difficult task: to establish the acceptable level at which to stabilize the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and subsequently to plan the economic sacrifices and energy policies to propose to the citizens of the various countries. But identifying this level depends on future climate predictions that must necessarily be more based on political than scientific hypotheses. We only need to think that the margin of fluctuation of temperature increase indicated by scientists — between 1,4 C and 5,8 C by 2100 — is the result of projections carried out starting from scenarios of economic development and world balance of power that depend on what the states decide to do or not to do in the next century.
Politics therefore represents the true variable of the future of humanity.
2. The more data are collected and the more studies are produced on the history and evolution of weather phenomena, the more the predictions seem to become uncertain. This is true of the case of recent observations by NASA researchers who, on the basis of satellite surveys over the last twenty years, have concluded that the models currently used to study the climate are more uncertain than we had thought. These models used are therefore not adequate to form long term policy and this situation does not seem set to change in the near future.[4] In reality they should not be necessary to establish climate changes that can be recorded from the surveys already available and from the historical climate indicators. Thanks to these data and indicators today, unlike in the past, we can establish for example what consequences an anomalous and repeated fluctuation of the flow of oceanic and air currents in the Northern Hemisphere would have on agriculture and fishing. We can also reasonably expect that should global warming continue, some northern regions of Europe and America would benefit from it, while others would be damaged. If warming should then reach the levels foreseen by the more pessimistic predictions, the effects on climate could be so unpredictable as to put the lifestyles, productive cycles and the feeding habits of even a large part of humanity in danger, with unimaginable political, economic and social repercussions. But all these predictions refer to areas much greater than the present states, that are still the ones that make decisions.
Safety and Environmental Policy.
As had already been indicated, the Kyoto protocol set the limits to pollution that could only have been adhered to if all the signatory states had been able to direct coherent national policies all together and simultaneously. It was and still is a condition which is hard to create, as was already seen in 1997, when the US Senate denounced the Kyoto agreements even before they were signed[5] and when in Europe the umpteenth intergovernmental debate opened to share the burdens of the emissions reductions set out.[6] The fact is that global targets were fixed whilst maintaining national decision-making instruments: this is the contradiction the states do not want to escape. This contradiction emerged when the problems of military security took priority over everything.
The signal of the change in direction came from the USA. It is well known that the USA have long been the greater producers of greenhouse gases and that, alone, they contribute to a quarter of global pollution. But their ratification of the Kyoto protocol would have surely meant a heavy engagement both in economic terms[7] and in political terms, due to the strong internal inertia to accept drastic energy saving policies. According to the protocol they would have had to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by seven per cent compared to 1990 levels: a now impossible undertaking if we think that from that year they have increased emissions by a further twelve per cent. What government in America, in the present international framework, could succeed in imposing federal policies for development and energy capable of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least twenty per cent by the end of the decade? Today the conditions simply do not exist for a consensus in American public opinion sufficient to support policies adequate for achieving such a target. We therefore need to take heed of the fact that the USA have no intention of sacrificing their world technological, military and economic lead on the altar of an agreement to reduce the risks of climate change, that represents by now more of a diplomatic challenge that an effective tool for climate management.[8] The reasons for this choice are clear in the economic report presented by President Bush to Congress to indicate the objectives of American policy. This report begins with an explicit reference to the new priorities of the nation and is strongly sceptical towards the role of the present international institutions: “The events of 2001 brought new challenges for the U.S. economy and for economic policy. The war against terrorism has increased the demands on our economy, and we must do everything in our power to build our economic strength to meet these demands.” And further on: “concepts such as a worldwide tax on greenhouse gas emissions or a worldwide tradable permit system, sometimes advertised as solutions, are at best useful theoretical benchmarks against which to measure alternative, practical approaches. At worst, they can be a distraction from meaningful, realistic steps forward. Why are such proposals impractical? Because they fail to recognize the enormous institutional and logistical obstacles to implementing any sweeping international program. Institutionally, it is important to learn to walk before trying to run.”[9] The report insists more than once on the necessity of using suitable technologies to confront the problem, making overall reference, however, to the successes already achieved in the USA, and of strengthening international institutions, but not indicating any global target to reach.[10]
Climate Management and a World Development Policy.
Bush’s plan does not aim to promote policies that contribute to the short term reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in absolute terms, but puts faith in the continuation of the positive trend in the improvement of technological efficiency, that has already allowed considerable reductions in the intensity of emissions per unit of production during the last century to be obtained. We only need to think that from 1930 until today the USA, although tripling the quantity of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, has considerably reduced the amount of gas emitted per million dollars produced. On the basis of these results the federal government has decided to remain faithful to the environmental policy that since the Seventies (Clean Air Act Amendments) has allowed the drastic reduction of a series of pollutants that were threatening to poison the environment. This policy has, since the end of the Eighties (Global Change Research Program), further boosted the study of the relationship between climate and human activities. But to truly reduce greenhouse gas emissions we would need a world policy capable of promoting a transition to new types of global energy consumption similar to those that occurred (over about a hundred years) during the passage from the carbon fossil economy to that based on oil. Instead the policy of the USA and of the industrialized countries generally continues to be orientated more towards exploiting the spontaneous trend towards the reduction in the intensity of emissions (seventeen per cent less over the last ten years, and eighteen per cent less over the next decade in the USA) than to develop a world policy in this field.[11] All this confirms that economic and technological developments are necessary but not sufficient conditions for reducing global pollution, that is now strictly linked to the phenomenon of the globalisation of the growth of individual consumption. Governments and national public opinion are aware of this fact, but they are imprisoned by solutions that are totally impassable at the international level, like the imposition of taxes and of common or market rules. It is certain that the introduction of a tax on carbon dioxide produced from various activities and production would encourage both the employment of technologies and fuels from the point of view of greenhouse gases, and less polluting consumption. But experience has shown how difficult it is to introduce such a tax at the continental level in the absence of strong international pressures — as the countries of the European Union well know and as the Clinton administration experienced at the beginning of the Nineties when it tried to introduce an energy tax in the USA. The same goes for the idea of creating an international market for pollution permission credits, first opposed and then accepted even by the Europeans and by the main environmental movements. This mechanism, already tested in the USA to resolve the problem of acid rain in North America, has allowed the most efficient enterprises to trade pollution permits (released preventively by the federal authority, however). Now, the premise for the success of such a mechanism is based on the very existence of a solid and efficient governmental framework — we only need to consider that is not possible to grant tradable pollution permits without a register of all the polluters. Today this framework exists neither at the European nor at the World scale. The result of all this is that the WTO for example cannot play a lead role in the solution of global ecological problems, but can only go as far as protecting the commercial interests of single states or groups of them.[12]
The hopes raised by the world environment summits from Stockholm (1972) to Rio (1992) and Kyoto (1997) were not quashed by a decreased awareness of the risks that the planet is facing — indeed this awareness has been increased and in some cases radicalised, but by the failure of the political premise that had made them a possibility: the détente beforehand and the end of the USA-USSR confrontation afterwards. The collapse of the USSR and Europe’s impotence have created such a power vacuum in the last decade that the United States could not have filled it alone. International cooperation, indispensable premise for the consolidation of a climate of trust between the States and therefore for the very functioning of international institutions, is in crisis. This is shown by the increasing tensions and the sparking of local conflicts, from the former Yugoslavia and from the Middle East, to Afghanistan, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missile technologies worldwide. It is true that in the meantime the opportunities for regional and international scale meetings have multiplied. But these facts, like China’s entry into the WTO, do not as much show the attempt to guarantee a more stable world government as the need to defend national interest everywhere by every means, starting with the diplomatic ones. In essence it is the return to traditional international competition, based on mutual distrust and fear between states. The inability to confront environmental problems should therefore be placed in the wider framework of the current redefining of the balances of forces at the world level. A phase in which Europe is playing an ever more marginal role. One could say, using the words of Norbert Elias, that “even in our day, just like in the old days, the constraints of interdependencies push us towards parallel conflicts, towards the formation of monopolies of coercion extended to ever greater regions and therefore, through all the horrors and wars, towards their pacification. And behind the tensions at the continental level and partly mixed in with them there already loom tensions belonging to a next level. We can begin to foresee the first shadows of a system of tensions extended to the entire globe and linked to alliances of states, to suprastatal unities of various types; we can foresee the symptoms of struggles for the elimination and the hegemony on a world scale of a central political institution extended to the whole globe as the premise for the formation of a world monopoly of coercion and therefore also being the premise for its pacification.”[13]
These words by Elias, that retake the Kantian analysis of humanity’s march towards peace, should make us think about the urgency with which Europe should arm herself with the necessary tools to go back to being an active subject of world politics, in order to contribute to reaching the final objective of peace through less violent and unjust routes, i.e. through an evolutionary cooperation between large continental states. But this aspiration risks becoming unrealistic if we do not untie the knot that paralyses Europe: its political division.
The lack of political unification in Europe after fifty years of integration has produced enormous damages. Europeans not only have still not been in a position to provide an adequate political response to the growing degree of interdependence reached at the continental level. With their division they have hindered the formation of a more balanced world order, weakening international bodies with their absence. Either Europeans will be able to found a federal state at the continental level, or it will become ever more difficult to avoid entering the tragic path described by Elias.
Franco Spoltore

[1] “Human pollution is washed out of the atmosphere by rain and lasts only a week. So it has to be continually replenished if it is to have an effect. In contrast, the life time of carbon dioxide is over a century, and so it builds up inexorably.” Kevin E. Trenberth, of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in IEEE Spectrum, March 2002.
[2] In 1997 the Kyoto world summit on climate change ended with a commitment — the Kyoto protocol — that was seeking to reassure national public opinions: something important could be done for the environment without paying too high a price in economic terms and whilst waiting for a greater involvement by developing countries. Among the opinions expressed after Kyoto, the positive comments underlined the novelty of an international protocol that was setting deadlines (2008-2012), precise percentages for the reduction of greenhouse gases (8-7-5%) and was pointing to a specific group of countries prepared to undergo this regime (all the biggest industrialized countries). The negative comments were that the Kyoto protocol was in any case inadequate to prevent the risks of climate change since, even if respected, it would not have been in a position to invert the trend towards the increase of harmful emissions within the foreseen deadlines. Neither the positive nor the negative comments bothered to clarify whether there was an adequate framework of power to put the Kyoto agreements into motion.
[3] “Climate change was a subtle catalyst, not a cause, of profound change in a European world where everyone lived at the complete mercy of a subsistence farming economy, where the ripple effects of poor wine harvests could affect the economic welfare of the Hapsburg empire. The Little Ice Age is the story of Europeans’ struggle against the most fundamental of all human vulnerabilities.” Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age — How Climate Made History 1300 -1850, New York, Basic Books, 2000, p. 59.
[4] This will be true, according to experts, even when the USA have a simulation system that will allow to go from the six present monthly climatic simulations, to beyond fifty simulations of climate evolution in the next century or when — probably by 2005 — a new satellite network capable of significantly increasing the collection of data about the atmosphere of our planet is installed.
[5] In the resolution approved by the American Senate through 95 votes for and 0 against in July 1997, it was declared that “the United States should not be a signatory to any protocol to, or other agreement regarding, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992, at negotiations in Kyoto in December 1997 or thereafter which would: (1) mandate new commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the Annex 1 Parties, unless the protocol or other agreement also mandates new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties within the same compliance period; or (2) result in serious harm to the U.S. economy.”
[6] So Le Monde (5/3/02) described the ratification of the Kyoto protocol by the European Union as follows: “The decision to ratify allows Europe to maintain its leading role in environmental policies. The aim is to make sure that the Kyoto protocol becomes operational in time for the world conference on sustainable development that will be held in Johannesburg. Currently 47 countries out of the total of the countries responsible for 55% of carbon dioxide pollution have ratified it. To reach this agreement, European ministers have had to reach a political compromise: the text was voted by a qualified majority — as Germany wanted — rather than by unanimity, as many states wanted. But the fifteen states have established that the decisions taken and that will tackle the application of the Kyoto protocol, will be adopted by consensus. This rule, that was prevailing in 1998, when the Europeans were sharing the burdens of emissions reduction, made sure that some of them will simply be able to stabilize their emissions, while others will have to greatly reduce them, and while others still will even be able to increase them.” See also the data produced by GRID-Arendal in collaboration with the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for the seventh conference of the parties involved in the ratification of the Kyoto protocol (COP-7) at the Convention held in Marrakech, Morocco on the 29th of October to the 9th of November 2001 (http://
[7] These policies would have cost 4% of the Gross Domestic Product according to the Economic Report of the President Transmitted to the Congress, February 2002, together with The Annual Report of the Council of Economic Advisers, Washington, USA Government Printing Office, 2002.
[8]  “The effect of the Kyoto Protocol on the climate would be minuscule, even if it were implemented in full. A model by Tom Wigley, one of the main authors of the reports of the UN Climate Change Panel, shows how an expected temperature increase of 2.1 °C in 2100 would be diminished by the treaty to an increase of 1.9 °C instead. Or, to put it another way, the temperature increase that the planet would have experienced in 2094 would be postponed to 2100. The Kyoto agreement merely buys the world six years. So the Kyoto agreement does not prevent global warming, but merely buys the world six years. Yet, the cost of Kyoto, for the United States alone, will be higher than the cost of solving the world’s single most pressing health problem: providing universal access to clean drinking water and sanitation.” Bjorn Lomborg, “The Truth About the Environment”, in The Economist, 2nd of August 2001. This analysis has been harshly criticized by environmentalists, but more because of the idea that the coming into effect of the Kyoto protocol could have promoted new agreements, rather than their refuting the prediction of poor results arising from its application.
[9] See the cited Economic Report, p. 15.
[10] Ibid., p. 20.
[11] Even in China economic development is developing energy saving systems similar to those known in industrialized countries, but overall, as we have seen, this will not serve to hinder the ascent of China to being first in the list of polluting countries. “Projections suggest that China will surpass the United States and climb into first place within the next two decades. China’s CO2 emissions climbed steadily at a rate of some 4 percent a year over the last two decades, but in the last few years this trend turned around. In 1998, China’s emissions dropped by 3.7 percent, despite robust economic growth of 7.2 percent. One important factor in the decline was a recent $14 billion cut in annual coal subsidies.” Hilary French, in Vanishing Borders, New York, WW Norton Company, 2000, p. 105.
[12] “The WTO has reported a massive proliferation of regional trade agreements in recent years, with an average of one per month being notified to the organization. A recent study by the WTO Secretariat identified a total of 172 regional trade agreements currently in force (including some that have not, or not yet, been notified to the WTO), and this number could well grow to about 250 by 2005. On the basis of the 113 regional trade agreements notified to the WTO and deemed to be in force as of July 2000, it is estimated that some 43 percent of world trade occurs within such agreements. This share would rise to 51 percent if all 68 or so of the regional trade agreements currently under discussion and scheduled to be in force by 2005 were already in place… The potential gains to the United States from these discussions are indeed sizable, in part because the multilateral negotiations promise to reduce barriers to U.S. trade around the entire world. One study finds that if a new trade round reduced world barriers on agricultural and industrial products and on trade in services by one-third, the gains to the United States could amount to $177 billion, or about $2,500 for the average American family of four.” Economic Report, cit., pp. 276-279.
[13] Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, consulted in the Italian edition, Il processo di civilizzazione, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1988, p. 778.




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