Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol an Essay

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Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol

An analysis of the effectiveness of an international agreement to mitigate the consequences of Climate Change without the involvement of the United States

Climate change, also known in some circles as global warming, is a phenomenon that has been the subject of a vast amount of attention in recent decades. This issue stands the potential not only to threaten many animal species around the world, but also has the potential to virtually eliminate the human race by making the climate of the earth inhospitable. Although it may be somewhat unlikely that the human species will become extinct anytime in the near future, the limitations of the planet to support the exponentially growing human population are becoming increasingly more salient as this field of research continues developing. With the world population recently climbing to over seven billion people, many researchers are questioning the natural ecosystem's ability to support the global population (Hanna and Osborne-Lee). Theoretically, humans will reach a point in which the regenerative capacity of the planet will no longer support the physical requirements of the population; if that point has not been crossed already.

It has been argued that if drastic steps are not taken billions of people, within this century, could be without many of the services that the earth naturally provides such as clean water or farmable land (Hanjra and Qureshi). Every attempt to address this situation has failed due to the lack of political support from industrialized nations; in particular the United States. The world's biggest polluters, the United States and China, are continuing to rapidly expand their greenhouse emissions which have acted to drastically accelerate the rate in which greenhouse gases are accumulating in the atmosphere. Despite the fact that China is one of the world's major emitters, it has agreed to sign on to the Kyoto agreement in the past and has shown a rather large commitment to sustainable practices. The U.S. On the other hand has made a rather weak effort to negotiate with the international community and is also the only industrialize country to fail to sign the Kyoto protocol (Facts on File News Services). This analysis will focus on whether an international agreement can be effective without the full participation of the United States government.

Background on CO2 Concentrations

Climate change, which is at least partly due to the rising concentrations of greenhouses in the atmosphere, can be thought of in terms of one of the main components of greenhouse gases which is carbon dioxide (CO2). Exponential increases in greenhouse gas emissions, primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels, have led to a carbon dioxide concentration of roughly 394 parts per million in the atmosphere (CO2 Now). The current concentrations of CO2 are alarming to many researchers because several scientists have claimed that the earth's highest level of CO2 that the Earth can sustainably support is somewhere around 350 parts per million (Hensen, Sato and Kharecha). The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international climate task force that includes scientists from all over the world, has stated that at 450 parts per million of CO2 levels that there is roughly a fifty two percent chance that catastrophic climate change will not occur (IPCC). Furthermore, to have any chance at reducing the exponential increases in emissions in order to stabilize the CO2 concentrations, many researchers have also predicted that there must be rapid reductions in pollution made within the next five years or else a threshold point could potentially be crossed.

Political Obstacles

The United States has failed to take any significant action in regards the climate and in accord with the international community. While a few states and various cities within the United States have made their own voluntary pledges, the federal government has not made any public commitments let alone signed a legally binding agreement. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 was an international agreement which was signed by virtually every nation on the planet to address the issue of greenhouse gas reductions. There were only two nations that failed to sign the agreement; the United States and Australia.

Australia later signed a ratified version of the agreement and left the U.S. As the only industrialized non-participant. China, the current leader in greenhouse gas emissions, was also a participant in the agreement however their requirements were slightly more relaxed than what was required of developed nations since China is still considered to be in the developing category. Though China currently holds the title of the world's biggest polluter in regards to total pollution emitted, the United States has contributed a far greater amount of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere due to the fact that the United States developed earlier and has been polluting for much longer than China. Additionally, the United States is still the overwhelming leader in greenhouse emissions when considered on a per capita basis.

There is a divide among many industrialized nations and developing nations about who is responsible for greenhouse gas reductions. Developing nations, such as China and India for example, have argued that since they were late to develop in comparison to more advanced economies like the United States and Europe, they are responsible for a very small fraction of the total carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere. Furthermore, in such developing countries the poverty rates are extremely high and that they need to keep developing to improve the quality of life among the less fortunate in their countries. Therefore, from their perspective, they feel like the bulk of the greenhouse gas reductions should come from the developed nations who also contain the technological sophistication to continue developing in a sustainable trajectory.

However, leaders of the advanced economies such as in the United States have argued that even though they have developed first, that the people who were actual responsible for the bulk of the historical emissions were from previous generations and these generations had no, or at least limited knowledge of the damage being done. Therefore, to inflict the present generations with the burden of addressing the climate change problem would be unfair to them because these citizens were not actually responsible for the bulk of the damages caused. It is these two positions that have led to somewhat of a stalemate in the international arena about what to do about climate change. Although the United States represents by far the most adversarial position on the matter, all advanced economies as well as developed nations must do more to address the problem if any level of significant mitigation is to be achieved.


With the scientific understanding of the challenges that lay ahead becoming progressively sophisticated coupled with the fact that the results of many new studies are increasingly alarming, it is reasonable to suspect that the United States must not only play a part in climate change mitigation but this country should lead a worldwide effort. However even if the U.S. takes drastic steps to reduce its emissions then China must also curb its growth and utilization of fossil fuels as well to meet these challenges. China is rich with coal in its borders which provides much of the country with electricity and this industry is growing at an alarming rate. Within the last five years it has been estimated that China will open two new coal fired power plants each and every week (Clayton). Not only are there an incredible number of new plants being brought online in China, each of these power plants has an estimated lifespan of fifty years or more which compounds the problems.

Yet again, from China's perspective, they argue that they have the right to develop in the same way that the United States did. The U.S. burned cheap coal to fuel its industrialization, advance its economy, and improve the quality of life for its citizens. If it were not for the cheap electricity, then the U.S. could not have developed its modern economy on the same trajectory. However, if China develops on the same trajectory as the U.S. did then there is really no hope that emissions can be reduced back down to the 350 ppm CO2 levels or even the 450 ppm CO2 levels which have been identified by the scientific community.

When all of this is put in perspective a rather bleak picture emerges. If future generations of humans are going to have an opportunity to live on a planet that looks even remotely similar to the one that we grow up on then something must be done quickly. However, capitalism is a system that is built upon growth and consumption. Each generation consumes more and more stuff and the consequences of this have led us to the situation we are in now. Although this has led to people being able to live with many material resources and nice lifestyles, unfortunately in may be that future generations will have to pay dearly for this extravagance.

Within the United States, many institutions have acted to become more…

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