Jeremy Leggett's "The Carbon War" is the story of how the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 came about, and how companies in the business of thermal fuel (coal, oil, gas) - Leggett calls them the "Carbon Club" - tried to derail the process of setting enforceable goals for lowering greenhouse gas emissions. It is also the story of how self-interest, not surprisingly, overrides the general interest; how the United States, home to some of the largest oil and gas multinationals and the world's premier carbon dioxide emitting nation, sided with the Carbon Club; how Australia, the world's largest coal exporter, joined forces with the United States.
The Kyoto Protocol will come into force on 16 February 2005. It has been ratified by more than 55 of its signatory countries. The United States, led by George W. Bush, however, walked out on the agreement in March 2001.
The fact of global warming is hardly disputable. The five hottest years recorded since 1880 were 1998, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2001, with 1998 having been the hottest. Whether the warming effect is man-made is still subject to discussion. But a full three quarters of scientists working in the field of climate change make the burning of fossil fuels responsible for the recorded increase in temperature.
The emission of carbon dioxide could be easily reduced if power could be economically generated by photovoltaic solar energy (PV). However, Adam Smith's invisible hand won't do the job in this particular case. It is a Catch-22 situation because PV will only be economically viable if the PV cells are mass-produced, but they are not mass-produced because people can't afford today's expensive PV products. This is a situation where government would have a proper role to fulfill - to jump-start a process that would help the common good where the mechanics of the market do not work. But unfortunately most governments do not care to do that.
Already in 1997, Leggett notes, "every country had its companies lost in skepticism about climate change. But in the USA the scale of the collective denial was unique." (264) Eight years later it is not much different. This denial comes at a cost, though. Not only the cost of becoming more and more isolated from global trends and losing the moral authority the USA enjoyed after Roosevelt and Truman established the country as a world power, but also an economic cost. State of the art ecological cars that really sell are not made by GM or Ford these days, but by Japan's Toyota. World-class oil companies with a comprehensive environmental policy are not ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco of the US, but BP and Shell of Europe.
Jeremy Leggett, by the way, founded his own company to promote and sell PV technology after he realized, with a certain bitterness, that his lobbying efforts to get emission limits agreed were not getting anywhere.