Although the United States government has failed to address climate change head-on, it has still made considerable environmental progress since the first Earth Day in 1970, Law School professor Cass Sunstein said during his Earth Week keynote address Tuesday. Sunstein spoke about environmental law and discussed the politics behind the government’s treatment of the Montreal and Kyoto Protocols.
In Sunstein’s view, the U.S. has accomplished great environmental changes in a relatively short period of time. On the first Earth Day three decades ago, the only environmental regulation in place was the largely ineffective 1963 Clean Air Act. Since then, the government has strengthened that law and implemented new policies to protect and maintain endangered species and clean water, he said.
“Earth Day has transformed the country,” he said.
According to Sunstein, climate change is the most daunting environmental issue the nation has faced so far, but one which has not been pursued aggressively enough. Considering America’s leading role in the Montreal Protocol—which came into effect in 1989 and introduced international statutes on ozone layer protection—Sunstein said that he finds general U.S. skepticism toward climate change and the Kyoto Protocol puzzling.
“The United States was on the world’s environmental meter under Reagan but has been lagging under Bush. That is the message Vice President Gore has pushed through in his movie,” he said, referring to Gore’s 2006 Academy Award–winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.
In 1987 Reagan and the U.S. Senate ratified the Montreal Protocol, an agreement to phase out ozone-damaging substances. The Kyoto Protocol, which the United States never ratified, is an international agreement whose aim is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
According to Sunstein, economics play a crucial role in motivating environmental policy. Ratifying and implementing the Kyoto Protocol would cost the U.S. government billions of dollars, which deterred the first Bush administration and the Senate from passing it.
Treating the health effects of ozone depletion would have cost the government more money than it took to enforce the Montreal Protocol, which Sunstein said was one of the central motivations behind Reagan’s support of the treaty.
“The Montreal Protocol succeeded fantastically from the standpoint of the United States because it was a great bargain,” he said. “The reason the Kyoto Protocol is failing is because it was a terrible bargain for the United States.”
Some estimates say climate change would only cost the United States a one- to three-percent drop in gross domestic product, which is not enough to motivate the Bush administration and many legislators to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, Sunstein said. But these cost estimates do not factor in the effects that a global temperature increase would have on animals.
“Some of the most alarming statistics, not including disasters, predict 30 to 40 percent of the world’s species would be wiped out, which is highly realistic. Once we put species and animals into the cost–benefit analysis, the numbers become quite different, and it becomes clear what we should do,” Sunstein said.
Since the U.S. emits such a large percentage of the world’s greenhouse gases but will not be proportionally affected, Sunstein suggested that the U.S. should aid foreign countries that will be devastated by the effects of climate change.
“The U.S. is able to help people and is first-hand responsible for the problem,” he said.
Even though the U.S. has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, Sunstein said that he hopes the next president might take steps toward regulating gas emissions that cause climate change. Presidential contenders Senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain are close to a consensus on a program to cap greenhouse gas emissions, he said.