When negotiators sat down to regulate controls on six greenhouse gases last month in Kyoto, Japan, they should also have considered a seventh: limits on the emissions that contribute to smoke and mirrors.
Because when the fog clears and the hall of mirrors is taken down, Kyoto shapes up as little more than a campaign stop for Vice President Al Gore.
The U.S. agreed to participate in a binding plan to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) and other lower-volume greenhouse gases by 6% to 8% below 1990 levels by 2008-2010, without any binding requirements for developing nations. For its part, the U.S. agrees to reduce its greenhouse gases 7% below 1990 levels, in effect requiring about a 35% reduction in emissions over the next dozen years.
The deal would allow "trading" of CO2 emission credits between clean and dirty countries along with credit for preserving or planting new forests.
The agreement goes beyond what President Bill Clinton proposed prior to Kyoto, which business leaders already said was too far, but not far enough to actually reverse the increase in carbon dioxide emissions. Consequently, it didn't go far enough to please environmentalists.
The Big Three, other industry groups and their unlikely allies in the labor unions have been quick to condemn the agreement, and U.S. legislators have signaled it has little future in their chambers.
Automakers' opinions are clear.
"It's a lousy agreement. It was a lousy agreement when they started, and it didn't get any better. It does not include the developing countries," says Alex Trotman,Motor Co. chairman and CEO.
"Our main concern is that there will be a regulatory push to make us change our product mix even if the U.S. Senate rejects the treaty. What really bothers me is to see Vice President Gore and his staff fly over there in a 747 then get driven around in limousines. I wonder how much carbon dioxide they put into the environment?"
Environmentalists have grumbled that the agreement is at least a first step and argue for bigger cuts in the future.
But for both sides it's probably just a waste of breath.
Mr. Gore already has made it clear it will be at least a year before the Clinton Administration would even consider asking for Senate confirmation. Even then, it wouldn't come to the Senate unless developing nations sign on to some sort of binding reduction plan.
But developing nations, led by China, have made it clear they still want to get their piece of the world economy and that it's up to the developed nations to clean up the air in the meantime.
Like many of the current administra-tion's environmental policies, the Kyoto agreement is strong on good intentions, but short on effective tools of implementation. Any real measurable effect, at least from the U.S., is pushed well beyond even the second term of a possible Gore presidency.
The agreement provides a range of reductions along with a system of emissions trading to help the developed nations meet the targets, but it staggers out the CO2 reduction targets between 2008 and 2010.
Indeed, Mr. Gore and other Democrats have good reason to stall on CO2 and National Ambient Air Quality Standards.
Where past environmental treaties often came down to a fight with the Republicans and business on one side and environmentalists and Democrats on the other, global warming and other recent battles on NAAQs are different.
Labor unions, important to Democrats hoping to make gains in mid-term elections later this year, have joined the GOP and business leaders in an uneasy alliance against the Kyoto agreement and other pollution controls.
Because the requirements to reduce CO2 emissions are not applied to developing nations, labor leaders are worried jobs will shift to those economies where industry regulation will be loose or non-existent. Business leaders, automotive executives included, add that the cuts mean they'll be less competitive globally and be forced to regulate changes that aren't supported by the buying public.
Some estimates suggest Americans could pay an additional $2,000 a year in energy costs to meet the requirements; Administration officials counter that unspecified "new technology" will close the gap.
But even if the Kyoto agreement gathers dust on a shelf, it doesn't mean the automakers can relax, says Andrew Card Jr., American Automobile Manufacturers Assn. president. Federal agencies still can set policy to discourage CO2 production, even if the U.S. does not officially participate, he says.
"Please don't think, because the Senate won't ratify the agreement, that we have nothing to worry about," Mr. Card tells WAW. "The global climate debate is going to require us to do a lot of due-diligence."
Still, given the current political climate in Washington, the Kyoto agreement likely will wither on the shelf. So by helping seal an agreement without actually closing the deal, Mr. Gore may be able to walk the fine line between the Democratic environmentalists and labor leaders as he looks toward 2000.