WASHINGTON -- As discussion about the looming war in Iraq intensifies in the wake of George Bush's State of the Union address, one item conspicuously absent from news bulletins and pundits' pontifications is the Kyoto protocol.
Kyoto, you say? What do halting efforts to address the growing threat of climate change have to do with the high-stakes confrontation between presidents George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein?
The common element, of course, is oil.
Bush and other U.S. officials may insist that their concern lies with weapons of mass destruction, human rights, democratic governance, and the like. Energy questions and Iraq were addressed as though utterly unrelated in the State of the Union speech. But, surprise, Iraq sits atop an ocean of cheap oil.
The current administration has staked out an energy policy that is predicated on a huge increase -- at least one-third over the next two decades -- in U.S. oil consumption. Where will that oil come from? While strenuous efforts are under way to unlock deposits of black gold in the far corners of the earth, the Middle East remains key.
Iraq has the largest unexplored reserves in the region, possibly even topping Saudi Arabia in total recoverable oil.
Needless to say, a policy that aims at a major expansion of oil and fossil fuels is fundamentally at odds with the spirit of Kyoto. The protocol, named after the Japanese city where negotiations took place in 1997, was cobbled together with the expectation that it was going to be a first step toward a climate-responsible energy policy.
Industrial countries are supposed to cut their carbon emissions by 5 percent from 1990 levels no later than 2012. Even more substantial reductions, including action by developing nations are needed if, some predict, a disastrous heating of the planet is to be avoided.
Bush denounced the Kyoto protocol, refusing to commit the United States to its terms. Voluntary measures, announced by the administration with great fanfare in February 2002, may be more effective in staving off mandatory action by Congress and state governments than in preventing continued emissions growth.
Already, U.S. carbon emissions have climbed 18 percent above 1990 levels. And the Energy Information Administration's International Energy Outlook 2002 projects emissions to grow by 33-46 percent over the next two decades. The struggle over climate policy, pitting the United States primarily against Europe, is in large measure one over the nature of the economy of the future.
Will it rely on the same old energy sources that pollute the air we breathe, and, according to some analyses, generate acid rain calamitous to lakes and forests, and commit humanity to a game of atmospheric Russian roulette?
Will it condemn the world to repeated wars and human rights violations over oil? Or will it be characterized by far more efficient and intelligent ways of using energy?
Will it unleash innovative technologies that not only harness the power of the sun and the wind, but generate large numbers of new jobs?
It is a question of life and death, not just for ordinary Iraqis who may find themselves on the frontlines of a shooting war, but ultimately for the entire planet.
The battle over Iraq's oil, if it comes, is only one episode in a figurative war -- the ongoing broader assault on the Earth's ecological balance.
To an extent unrivaled by any other nation on earth, the United States is addicted to oil. More than a mere toxicant, oil is like oxygen to the United States. Americans drive SUVs in the name of individual freedom and regard unlimited consumption as their birthright. Public policy actively nurtures and subsidizes these guzzling habits. Representing a mere 5 percent of global population, the United States claims 26 percent of the world's oil use.
Predicated on massive flows of cheap oil, the U.S. economy remains far less energy efficient than those of competitors in Europe and Japan.
The country has gone to great lengths to maintain its domination over world oil -- by propping up its clients in oil-exporting nations with arms and credits, overthrowing or marginalizing those that stand in the way, influencing the routing of oil export pipelines, and exercising undisputed control over the sea-lanes through which much of the world's oil is shipped.
An Iraq that is in desperate need to rebuild a starved and shattered country, and favorably disposed toward U.S. interests, can be expected to open the oil spigot wide as soon as its facilities are repaired. A U.S. government task force has reportedly been consulting with industry representatives and Iraqi opposition figures on ways to achieve just that outcome.
It may take some years, a rehabilitated Iraq is capable of flooding world oil markets, driving prices lower than they have been in many years.
Sustained low prices would critically undermine the fledgling efforts to build wind, solar, and hydrogen industries, kick away the economic incentive to use energy more prudently, and effectively destroy the Kyoto protocol.
Wind power in particular has come a long way, growing by more than 30 percent annually in recent years and now cost-competitive with most conventional sources of energy.
Such advances could fall victim to artificially cheap oil -- a fuel whose considerable ecological and security costs are not properly accounted for.
This is by no means an inevitable scenario. Just as it is possible that weapons inspections and determined global opposition to warmongering, can yet avert an invasion of Iraq, there is no reason why the United States cannot face up to its oil addiction. Neither is likely to happen in the absence of an informed, vocal public that demands an alternative approach to matters of war and peace and the environment.
Michael Renner is a senior researcher for the Worldwatch Institute.
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