No doubt 1997 will be remembered as the year the nations of the world
began to confront the problem of global warming.
The great majority of the world's meteorologists (weather experts) now
agree that human activities are noticeably warming the entire planet.
 As humans burn "fossil fuels" (coal, oil, and natural gas,
including of course gasoline), the resulting emissions of carbon
dioxide act like the glass covering a greenhouse, letting sunlight in
but not letting heat escape. As a result, the planet is warming.
Despite widespread scientific agreement on the fact of global warming,
there is considerable disagreement about what harm it will do. CHEMICAL
& ENGINEERING NEWS, the weekly voice of the American Chemical Society,
recently summarized current research, saying:
** The temperature of the air at ground level has warmed slowly but
steadily since 1880. The 10 warmest years on record (since record-
keeping began 117 years ago) have occurred since 1980; and 1997 is
likely to end up the second warmest year on record.
** When heat is trapped, 20% of it goes to warm the atmosphere while
80% of it produces increased evaporation, thus putting more water vapor
into the atmosphere.
** Evidence has been reported that total worldwide precipitation has
increased during the past century. In some places, total precipitation
has increased 50% since 1900. In the U.S., rainfall has increased 5% to
10% since 1900.
** In many places, the increased precipitation is coming in heavy
downpours rather than in gentle rainfall. In the past decade, there
have been 10 times as many catastrophic floods worldwide as there had
been in the previous decade, according to the federal National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Europe alone has experienced 5
catastrophic floods in the last 5 years.
** Before industrialization, the amount of carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere was about 280 parts per million (ppm) by volume. Today it is
about 350 ppm (a 25% increase) and rising. The Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change (IPCC) --the international scientific group studying
global warming --has predicted that when carbon dioxide reaches 550
ppm, twice as high as it was before industrialization, average warming
will be somewhere between 2 and 6 degrees Fahrenheit (1 and 3.5 degrees
According to CHEMICAL & ENGINEERING NEWS some scientists think that
even an average warming of 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit)
will produce expensive, unpleasant results. For example, Alan Robock,
professor of meteorology at University of Maryland is quoted saying
that such a rise would probably create a rate of warming faster than
any seen in the last 10,000 years. He says a 1 degree Celsius average
rise would pose significant threats of crop failures in the
breadbaskets of the world, of stronger, more violent storms, and of
At Kyoto last week, 150 nations agreed in principle to the following
** Thirty-eight industrial nations must reduce their emissions of
greenhouse gases to an average of 5% below 1990 levels by 2012.
Although the average must be cut to only 5% below 1990 levels, for a
country like the U.S. which has steadily rising emissions, the Kyoto
agreement will require cuts as great as 30% to 35% below where
emissions would otherwise be by the year 2012.[3,4]
** Developing countries, like China and India, are asked to set
** Enforcement for the 38 countries bound by real limits will be
decided upon later.
** Ratification. The Kyoto accord will become legally binding once it
has been ratified by at least 55 nations representing at least 55% of
the 1990 carbon dioxide emissions. (The U.S., with 4% of the world's
population, emits 20% of world total carbon dioxide.) The terms are
binding on an individual country only after its own government ratifies
** Trading pollution rights. The most controversial part of the Kyoto
accord allows nations to purchase pollution rights from other nations.
The details will be worked out at a meeting set for next November in
Buenos Aires. In the meantime, here is how tradeable pollution permits
Typically, tradeable pollution permits are presented as the "free
market" solution to environmental problems. However, economist Herman
Daly has described tradeable pollution permits clearly, allowing us to
see that the "free market" plays only a small role in tradeable
The first step in any tradeable pollution permit plan is to create a
limited number of rights to pollute. Added all together, the pollution
allowed by these rights must not exceed the absorptive capacity of the
ecosystem. In other words, as a first step, someone has to determine
the total quantity of pollution that the ecosystem can tolerate --in
this instance, the total quantity of greenhouse gases that will keep
the planet's temperature tolerably low. The "free market" has nothing
to do with this first step. This is a matter of scientific judgment and
moral judgment --how much disruption of the global ecosystem are the
world's people willing to chance?
The second step is to allocate, or distribute, these newly-created
assets (these rights to pollute). They must be initially distributed to
various parties (individuals, firms, or nations, for example). What is
a fair distribution? Should every citizen be given some of these rights
free? Should every firm be given a bundle of these rights free? Should
these rights be considered public property and then be auctioned off to
the highest bidder, or simply sold for a predetermined price? What
seems fair and equitable will vary from country to country. When the
U.S. began its tradeable permit program for sulfur dioxide as part of
the Clean Air Act of 1990, existing sulfur dioxide emitters were freely
given the right to pollute at or near their existing levels. This may
seem to reflect an odd conception of fairness since sulfur emitters are
degrading a public resource (the air we all breathe). However, this way
of distributing pollution rights is consistent with a society that
tolerates and even encourages the purchase of political power by the
highest bidders (maintaining a free market in political rights, so to
speak), as the U.S. currently does.
The third step is to allow the buying and selling of pollution rights.
Only in this third step does the "free market" formally come into play.
The market will distribute pollution rights in a least-cost fashion,
providing something close to the cheapest way to achieve the allowed
levels of pollution.
Herman Daly does not say so, but tradeable pollution rights have
several obvious problems.
1) Often the oldest, most polluting plants would be the most expensive
ones to fix up. They may also be located in poor, people-of-color
communities. Rather than curbing their pollution, it may be more
"efficient" (meaning profitable) to purchase pollution rights and keep
on polluting. Thus tradeable pollution rights may --with maximum
economic efficiency --dump on the poor.
In the U.S., this has already happened. Pollution trading has been
advanced by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and others in a way that
leaves the proponents open to charges of racism or of simply not caring
about the social consequences of their ideas. Under the Clean Air Act,
some of the worst polluters --the ones needing to clean up the most,
who also tend to be located in people-of-color communities --have been
buying pollution rights to continue polluting, thereby inequitably
adding to the burdens of people-of-color communities. From this we
learn that, even though the market may "efficiently" distribute
pollution, efficiency and equity are not connected. Pollution trading
can create great inequities very efficiently.
2) Tradeable pollution permits create a new "right to pollute" that
never existed before such rights were created by law, or by the Kyoto
agreement. These new rights are new assets that someone will own. We
can look forward to the day when grass-roots activists successfully
convince their community to come down hard on a polluter, only to be
hauled into court and asked to pay for the lost profits suffered by the
polluter who had purchased a right to pollute. As a practical matter,
tradeable pollution rights will strengthen the legal position of
corporate polluters and weaken the position of communities.
There are other problems with tradeable pollution rights (at least as
presently implemented), which we will discuss as we get closer to the
November meeting in Buenos Aires.
All together, the Kyoto agreement is a brave start. Unfortunately, even
if it succeeds 100% in meeting its goals, greenhouse gases will
continue to rise. In a clear statement on its front page in early
November, the NEW YORK TIMES declared that "a growing number of
scientists and policy makers" believe it will be impossible to avoid a
doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. "...[M]any experts believe that
it is already too late to avoid serious climatic disruption, that the
task ahead is one of keeping it from becoming truly catastrophic," the
TIMES said. "The reason, [these experts] say, is that the world's
economic and political systems cannot depart from business as usual
We might ask, Who EXACTLY cannot depart from "business as usual"
rapidly enough to avoid "serious disruption" of the planet's
atmosphere? In an editorial six months earlier the TIMES had named the
parties opposing timely control of greenhouse gases: the major
producers and users of fossil fuels, "the big utilities, the oil
companies, and the automobile and petrochemical industries."
So, according to the TIMES, our course is set. Even if the U.S.
ratifies the Kyoto accord, which is highly unlikely (Newt Gingrich
calls the Kyoto agreement a "surrender" by the U.S. and an
"outrage."), we are in for a doubling of greenhouse gases and
serious disruption of the earth's climate.[3,7] Is this what the
American people want? On December 11 the TIMES reported taking a poll
which revealed that 65% of Americans feel the U.S. should cut its
greenhouse emissions "regardless of what other countries do" and only
17% feel that cutting emissions "will cost too much money and hurt the
U.S. economy." Unfortunately, among those 17% we count the wealthy
corporate polluters who own and operate Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott
(Senate majority leader) and most of their colleagues in both
legislative houses. The important lesson from Kyoto may be the extent
to which our democracy has been hollowed out by big corporate money. We
still hear the words, "One person, one vote" but in reality (as
everyone now knows) the American way has become "One dollar, one vote."
--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 William K. Stevens, "In Kyoto, The Subject is Climate; The Forecast
is for Storms," NEW YORK TIMES December 1, 1997, pgs. E1, E11.
 Bette Hileman, "Global Climate Change," CHEMICAL & ENGINEERING NEWS
[C&EN] (November 17, 1997), pgs. 8-16.
 William K. Stevens, "Despite Pact, Gases Will Keep Rising," NEW
YORK TIMES December 12, 1997, pg. A16.
 Matthew L. Wald, "Agency Says Gas Emissions Will Be Worse Than
Thought," NEW YORK TIMES November 16, 1997, pg. 36.
 Herman Daly, BEYOND GROWTH (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), pgs. 52-
 Press Release, "Pollution Trading Deemed Illegal, Unfair in
Unprecedented Clean Air Act Lawsuits Against L.A. Oil Giants; Community
Calls On City to Scrap Loophole That Creates Toxic 'Hot Spots,'" issued
July 23, 1997, by Communities for a Better Environment, 605 W. Olympic
Blvd., Suite 850, Los Angeles, CA 90015, telephone 213/486-5114.
Contact person: Carlos Porras.
 William K. Stevens, "Experts Doubt a Greenhouse Gas Can Be Curbed,"
NEW YORK TIMES November 3, 1997, pgs. A1, A12.
 "Words and Deeds on Global Warming [editorial]," NEW YORK TIMES
June 29, 1997, pg. E14.
 John M. Broder, "Clinton Adamant on 3d World Role in Climate
Accord," NEW YORK TIMES December 12, 1997, pgs. A1, A16.
 James Bennet, "Warm Globe, Hot Politics," NEW YORK TIMES December
11, 1997, pgs. A1, A10.
Descriptor terms: global warming; greenhouse effect; greenhouse gases;
carbon dioxide; international agreements; flooding; precipitation;
kyoto; emissions trading; emissions allowances; clean air act; electric
power industry; automobile industry; petroleum industry; petrochemical
industry; fossil fuels; coal; oil; natural gas; gasoline; herman daly;
edf; environmental defense fund; cbe; citizens for a better
environment; pollution rights;