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Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz urged at a CGD event that U.S. trade partners ask the WTO for authority to impose countervailing duties on exports of U.S. steel and other energy-intensive products that benefit unfairly from Washington’s refusal to join the Kyoto Protocol limiting carbon and other greenhouse gasses.

There is a precedent for such duties, Stiglitz said, because Washington previously obtained a World Trade Organization ruling in support of a U.S. ban on the import of shrimp caught in Thailand using nets that killed endangered species of turtles.

"I asked one of the (WTO) appellate judges (involved in the decision) whether he understood what the implications were for global warming, because clearly if you can impose a trade sanction to save a turtle, you can impose a trade sanction to save the planet," Stiglitz told a standing-room only audience. “And the judge said, yes… we were aware of where this was going.” (video and transcripts online )

Moreover, countervailing duties on energy-intensive products would be justified, he said, because the U.S. refusal to restrict the emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gasses unfairly lowers U.S. manufacturing costs, and is thus a form of subsidy.

"One of the main purposes of the WTO is to create a level playing field; subsidies distort the playing field, which is why countries are allowed to offset subsidies through countervailing duties," Stiglitz explains in Making Globalization Work (Amazon) , the new book he was promoting at the CGD event. "This should be the case for hidden subsidies—not forcing firms to pay for the environmental damage they inflict—as well as for open subsidies."

The book contains a detailed explanation of the proposal--and an interesting discussion of the response his idea has received so far from senior officials:

I have discussed this idea with senior officials in many of the advanced industrial countries that are committed to doing something about global warming. And while, almost to a person, they agree with the analysis, almost to a person they also show a certain timidity: the proposal is viewed by some as the equivalent, in the trade arena, of declaring nuclear war. It is not. It would, of course, have large effects on the United States, but global warming will have even larger effects on the entire globe. It is just asking each country to pay for the full social costs of its production activities. Following standard practice, the pressure of trade sanctions could gradually be increased; and almost surely, as America recognizes the consequences, its policies would be altered--as they have been in other instances where the United States has been found in violation of WTO rules.

Making Globalization Work is full of provocative ideas. This strikes me as the most interesting and important--an idea that has the potential to help save the planet.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.