Acton Commentary

How Not to Protect the Environment


Last Wednesday, with a whimper rather than a bang, the long-awaited Kyoto Protocol formally went into effect. The agreement, signed by 140 nations since its drafting in Japan in 1997, commits signatory countries to restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.

The reason that the Kyoto treaty's fortunes have been falling rather than rising over the last seven years is because it does not include several important nations--United States, China, and India-- otherwise known as “the big polluters.” China and India were deemed exempt from controls because they are developing nations. The United States calculated that the prospective environmental benefit would not be worth the economic cost and refused to ratify the accord.

The further reason that Kyoto's implementation lacks fanfare is that, even among signatory nations, there is widespread understanding that the agreement's goals will not be reached. Nations such as Germany and Japan blame this on the United States. Since American companies won't be subject to the same controls, they will have an unfair advantage; this forces European and Japanese companies to ignore the restrictions in order to remain competitive in the global market.

It's also possible that Kyoto nations cannot reach the goals because they were unrealistically formulated to begin with and, when it comes to the point of making the tradeoffs that will bring about these pollutant reductions, no one is actually willing to sacrifice prosperity.

Whichever explanation is more accurate, it may be worthwhile at this point to reflect on what the underlying moral calculus should be on these kinds of environmental questions.

Much of the Christian understanding of creation and human beings' role in it derives from the Genesis account, which teaches that human beings are created in God's image and are thereby the pinnacle of creation, that the works of God are good, and that creation is given to human beings as stewards.

The principle of stewardship and the related imperative that the goods of the earth are intended for the good of all require that human beings treat natural resources not merely as objects to be exploited for short-term pleasure, but as gifts that are to be used responsibly, with a view to their preservation for future generations.

The good intentions of Kyoto matched this imperative, to conserve the planet's resources so that our descendants were not saddled with an environment irrevocably degraded. Where Kyoto failed was in projecting blanket restrictions, without sufficient regard for the freedom of individual nations--and individual persons--to express what might be differing evaluations about the tradeoff between economic development and environmental protection.

For China and India, for example, countries striving to meet the spiraling demands of burgeoning populations, the immediate needs of development outweigh the desire for stricter environmental controls. Most Europeans and Americans would not tolerate the levels of pollution present in developing nations--but at a parallel point in the development of European and American nations, citizens of those countries did tolerate those levels. They judged the provision of the necessities of life to be worth the cost. This is as it should be: A commitment to the welfare of human beings takes precedence over a general devotion to the well being of the earth.

What of the United States? It's a wealthy nation, able to afford some environmental limitations, and in fact the emission of pollutants has declined dramatically in recent decades. It has become common wisdom among economists that prosperity leads to better environmental practices. Once people are no longer scrambling to provide for their next meal, they begin to give thought to “quality of life” issues such as dirty air and deforestation.

As Alan S. Manne, Professor Emeritus of Operations Research in climate change at Stanford University has said, “non-market damage... is of far greater concern to high-income regions than to those with low incomes; Bangladesh has more reason to be concerned about typhoons than about Arctic ice flows.”

A major contributor to this progress is technology, which has permitted more efficient production of goods, especially energy. The generation of this technology depended on the economic development that preceded it.

We are morally obliged to use the environment responsibly, both because it is a gift from God and because the good of others (present and future) depends on it. Most commonly, this moral obligation will be met through the conscientious use of private and corporate property. Where environmental standards must be set through the consensus of a political community, the usual political process can accomplish the task.

When the trade-offs between economic development and environmental protection are made by international assemblies of non-elected officials; when it is not clear that those trade-offs take into account adequately the needs of persons over an abstract commitment to the environment; and when the standards enacted are not flexible enough to allow smaller political entities to adapt them to local needs--then the project is bound to fail.