One of the steady drumbeats of criticism against George Bush is that he is an enemy of the environment because he refused to sign the Kyoto protocols at the beginning of his presidency. For those who forget, the Kyoto Protocols were aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the environment by placing “caps” on already-industrialized nations like the United States, Japan and members of the European Union. Now an event in China highlights why Bush never signed it.
Though well-intentioned, the Kyoto protocol’s most debilitating feature had everything to do with the countries exempted from the treaty’s green house gas cap: China and India. Remember, the entire logic behind Kyoto was that mankind was causing a warming of the globe by emitting all of that carbon dioxide. Logic follows, then, that if we are to stop doing damage to the global environment, we need to curtail these emissions everywhere. Again, logically, this means curtailing pollution in places that are industrializing now. Politically, that would require asking the poorer nations to forgo development in order to protect the standard of living in the industrialized world.
That’s why Kyoto counted on a lot of guilt on the part of the West for its passage. Like so many legislative fixes we see these days, Kyoto was to be measured not on what it actually accomplished, but what it intended to do. Like it or not, Kyoto was doomed to failure from the onset because it asked the world’s two most rapidly developing nations to do nothing about their environment. That’s not because India and China have impeccable environmental records — they don’t have anything close to what we have in the West. Proof of this comes in the way China handled the first days of a chemical spill into its own Songhua River.
Reporters in the West now know that sometime during the last week of November, an explosion at a chemical plant in the northeastern Chinese city of Jilan released over 100 tons of benzene and other toxic chemicals into the Songhua River. As the plume of chemicals started working its way downstream and toward a city of 3 million, Chinese officials (who were still denying the chemical spill’s existence) simply turned the city’s water off to protect the population from poisoning. The Chinese people got the real story when workers at the chemical factory started posting messages on Internet billboards warning their relatives downstream.
Again, officially, the spill hadn’t happened, largely because the Chinese government owns the plant where the accident occurred. By Nov. 22nd, however, China had to admit both the explosion and the spill because the spill was about to become an international problem. You see, before it reaches the Pacific, the Songhua River flows through the former Soviet Republic. Russian authorities have advised residents living in the sparsely populated region to stop eating or catching fish for a year while the effects of benzene dissipate. After firing an environmental safety official, China now has offered to pay some of Russia’s costs.
The upshot of the Songhua chemical spill is that it highlights the critical flaw of any environmental treaty that does not make governments responsible for their industry. In the West, companies conform to environmental standards or risk losing substantial amounts of money in the form of environmental compliance fines and civil suits. But in the West, the government that runs the regulatory agency does not also own the chemical plant. In China, the government does. Forced to choose between lower productivity and higher environmental quality, Chinese managers have consistently chosen the dirtier, cheaper way. That’s why environmental degradation in that country is so rampant. And these effects are not confined to Southeast Asia: air quality experts blame fully one third of Southern California’s high ozone levels on emissions coming from China. Talk about a Global Village.
So my question is: where are the environmentalists? Perhaps because they played such an active role in giving China a “pass” when it came to the Kyoto accords, they are reluctant to step forward now and criticize a government that has done more to ruin the global environment than the United States. More than anything, the Songhua chemical spill shows us how rapid industrialization in other countries, if handled poorly, threatens us all.