Success and Failure

At first glance, the problems of ozone depletion and climate change seem exceedingly similar. In both contexts, nations appear to have a great deal to gain from cooperative action; technological innovation is highly desirable as a means of reducing the costs of regulation; intergenerational equity is a serious and complex issue; wealthy nations are responsible for the problem in the first place; and poor nations have a plausible claim to compensation, both for harm done and in return for their willingness to reduce emissions in the future.

Notwithstanding the similarities, the Montreal Protocol has proved a stunning success, and the Kyoto Protocol has largely failed. The contrasting outcomes are best explained by reference to the radically different approaches taken by the United States—by far the most significant contributor, per capita, to both ozone depletion and climate change. It is tempting to attribute those different approaches to the political convictions of the relevant administrations. But the Reagan administration, which pressed for the Montreal Protocol, was hardly known for its aggressive pursuit of environmental protection, and the Senate showed no interest in the Kyoto Protocol during the Clinton administration. The American posture, and hence the fate of the two protocols, was largely determined by perceived benefits and costs.

To the extent that the citizens of the United States have benefited from activities that inflict harms on other nations, those citi zens are properly asked to help—through reducing their own emissions, through paying other nations to reduce theirs, and through payments to ease adaptation. But domestic self-interest will continue to be an important motivating force in international agreements on climate change. The task for the future is to devise an international agreement that resembles the Montreal Protocol in one critical respect: Its signatories, above all the United States and China, have reason to believe that they will gain more than they will lose.


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