In 2001, 178 of the world's nations reached agreement on a treaty to combat global climate change brought on by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. Despite the notable omission of the United States, representatives of the participants, and many newspapers around the world, expressed elation. Margot Wallström, the environment commissioner of the European Union, went so far as to declare, “Now we can go home and look our children in the eye and be proud of what we have done.”
In this article, I argue for two theses. First, the rhetoric and euphoria surrounding the 2001 deal is misplaced. This is not, as is often said, because the Kyoto agreement is too demanding but rather because it is much too weak. In particular, the Kyoto agreement does little to protect future generations. On the contrary, (at best) it seems to be a prudent wait-and-see policy for the present generation, narrowly defined. Hence, even those countries who have endorsed the Kyoto agreement should be wary of looking their children in the eye, and none should relish facing their children's children.
Second, the failure of the Kyoto agreement can be explained in terms of the underlying structure of the problem. Climate change involves the intersection of a complex set of intergenerational and intragenerational collective action problems. This structure, and in particular its intergenerational aspect, has not been adequately appreciated. Yet until it is, we are doomed to an ineffectual environmental policy.