WASHINGTON, DC -- Christie Todd Whitman, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, confirmed today that the country will not implement the Kyoto Protocol. "We have no interest in implementing that treaty," Whitman told reporters.
Whitman's comments come two days after the European Union wrote to U.S. President George W. Bush, seeking his commitment to the climate change treaty and calling on him to find political courgage.
The news has been greeted with anger and disappointment from some quarters in the U.S. and overseas.
Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning in electricity generation and from agriculture and transportation are thought by many scientists to have reached levels that require precautionary and prompt action.
Under the Protocol, agreed in Kyoto, Japan in 1997, 39 industrialized nations must cut emissions of six greenhouse gases to an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by the period 2008-2012.
But the Protocol will not take effect until it is ratified by 55 percent of the nations emitting at least 55 percent of the greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride.
That has yet to happen because countries disagree on how they should be allowed to meet their targets, which while modest, are deemed an important first step toward reversing global warming and climate change.
Under the Protocol, the U.S. is supposed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by seven percent. With four percent of the world's population, the country accounts for about 25 percent of the Earth's greenhouse gas emissions.
Bush, a former oilman, has questioned the science behind climate change forecasts and hinted recently that the U.S. no longer supports the Kyoto Protocol or intends living up to the targets the country agreed upon four years ago.
On March 13, Bush reversed a pledge to legislate limits on C02 emissions from U.S. power plants, saying such a rule would be too costly, in light of rising energy prices. In a speech last September, Bush vowed to require limits on C02 emissions, along with other power plant pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury.
Whitman's statement today is the clearest indication yet that U.S. involvement in United Nations organized climate change talks is all but over.
"If there's a general agreement that we need to be addressing the global climate change issue, how do we do it in a way that allows us to make some progress, instead of spending time committed to something that isn't going to go?" said Whitman.
"We are not the only ones who have problems with it," said Whitman, adding that the U.S. would remain "engaged" with the issue.
Talks in The Hague, Netherlands last November were supposed to finalize agreement on how Kyoto's targets could be met. Those talks, officially known as the sixth Conference of Parties (COP 6) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), finished without agreement.
Officials from more than 160 governments will meet in Bonn, Germany, from July 16 to 27, to reconvene COP 6. European Commission President Romano Prodi and Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson wrote to Bush this week, seeking talks with the U.S. prior to the resumption of COP 6 to narrow differences between the European Union and the U.S. on how targets should be met.
"To the European Union, an agreement at the resumed session on the basis of the Kyoto Protocol and leading to real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is of the utmost importance," said the letter.
European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrm responded to Whitman's announcement.
"It is very worrying if it is true that the U.S. intends to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol. The European Union is willing to discuss details and problems - but not to scrap the whole protocol," said Wallstrm.
United Kingdom based environmental group Friends of the Earth reacted angrily to today's news and called for the rest of the world to continue climate change talks without the U.S.
"George Bush's decision to rat on the Kyoto treaty is grim news," said Friends of the Earth director Charles Secrett.
"When the Hague talks collapsed last year because of U.S. intransigence, Friends of the Earth warned that the world would pay the price in tears. Millions of people - in the U.S. as well as in other countries - face the loss of their homes, their jobs and even their lives because of climate change.
"But this ignorant, short sighted and selfish politician, long since firmly jammed into the pockets of the oil lobby, clearly couldn't care less. The talks in Bonn in July must now concentrate on world action independent of the U.S."
The Brussels based think tank, Centre for European Policy Studies said the European Union must "put aside its internal squabbles," "summon up the courage of its convictions" and ratify the protocol unilaterally.
U.S. groups were equally critical. The New York based environmental advocacy group Environmental Defense said the country's image was suffering.
"The Bush Administration's approach of explore for oil and ignore the science on global warming leaves the U.S. increasingly isolated from the rest of the world," said Environmental Defense
executive director Fred Krupp.
"It is bad for America's interests for the United States to be seen as the rogue nation of greenhouse gas pollution."
"By simply opposing the Kyoto Protocol rather than seeking to improve it, the administration would have effectively blocked the only binding international agreement for fighting global warming, while offering no alternative path to protect the planet," said Krupp.
"This move would have the potential to slow international action on climate change for many years. As the world's last remaining superpower, and the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases, the U.S. has a special obligation to lead on this issue.
"The international community and forward thinking elements of the business community are already taking this problem on; it's time for the new administration to face its responsibilities on global warming as well."
The Washington, DC based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) said Bush had capitulated to the oil and coal industries.
"This is the most anti-environmental act by an American president in modern history," said Alden Meyer, UCS director of government relations.
"In one fell swoop, the President has embraced the do nothing mantra of polluters and elevated their short term self interests above public health and the environment. With this action, President Bush is declaring that on the environment, the U.S. is a rogue nation.
"It is a grave error in judgment, one that will tarnish his credibility around the globe and be judged harshly by historians and future generations.
"World leaders must condemn this brazen act and forge ahead on ratification and implementation of the Kyoto Protocol - with or without the U.S."
Not everyone was so disappointed though. Glenn Kelly, executive director of the Washington, DC based Global Climate Coalition, welcomed Bush's and Whitman's opposition to what he called the "irreparably flawed Kyoto Protocol."
"It is common knowledge that the Kyoto Protocol will only continue leading us down a dead end street," said Kelly.
"Devoting additional efforts to 'fixing' the fundamentally flawed treaty would simply be a waste of valuable resources that are critically needed in other areas to develop far more promising approaches to effectively address the important climate issue."
The Global Climate Coalition represents more than six million businesses, companies and corporations in the international policy debate on global climate change. The group favors a technology based approach to climate policy, rather than emissions cuts.
"The Administration appears to have signaled an intent to pursue technology based solutions that will meet America's energy needs while at the same time addressing important climate concerns that will be far more effective than any thing that has been proposed to date, including the Protocol," Kelly said.
"This is a prudent step, and clearly the right thing to do."
Pressure at home
Bush has been under increasing pressure from environmental groups alarmed by reversals of environmental protections within the U.S. One of the country's oldest and largest environmental groups, the Sierra Club launched a series of radio ads criticizing the President today.
Running in nine states, the ads focus on Bush's decision against reducing cancer causing arsenic in Americans' drinking water and his about face on a campaign pledge to cut the C02 pollution that causes global warming.
"The public cares about clean air and clean water and they need to know that President Bush is making irresponsible choices that put their families' health at risk," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club.
"President Bush is ignoring sound science and the public's demand to keep drinking water safe and reduce the carbon dioxide pollution that causes global warming. No one wants to drink arsenic when they turn on their tap, but President Bush caved to the mining industry and halted an effort to make our drinking water safer," said Pope.
Last week the Bush administration announced a roll back of new rules that would have reduced the amount of arsenic allowed in American drinking water.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, long term exposure to low concentrations of arsenic in drinking water can lead to skin, bladder, lung, and prostate cancer. Non-cancer effects of ingesting arsenic at low levels include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and anemia, as well as reproductive and developmental, immunological, and neurological effects.
Today, House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, Representative from Missouri, weighed in to Bush with more examples of what he called environmental flip flops. These included the roll back of arsenic rules, the about turn on CO2 emissions and Bush's wish to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
"There's a mentality that says you can't explore and protect land," Bush said at a media roundtable last week. "We're going to change that attitude."
Gephardt said Bush's roll backs are just the beginning.
"In just two short months, the President has launched a blistering attack on environmental regulations that affect the lives of millions of people in our country," said Gephardt.
"Unfortunately, we have good reason to believe that the actions of this administration are just the beginning. We think the Administration is teeing up more rules to role back.
"They are reviewing environmental standards, looking for ways to undo progress, putting together a budget that cuts $2.3 billion from programs to protect natural resources."
- 100 Climate Justice Initiative