Heat Waves Ahead

‘From the beginning,” said Pope John Paul II at his weekly general audience on Jan. 17, “God intended man to be the steward of creation and to live in harmony with his Creator, his fellow human beings and the created world.... There is an urgent need for ‘ecological conversion,’ directed to safeguarding not only the natural environment but also the human quality of life.” Over the past decade one group of American bishops after another has echoed the pope in urging Catholics to awaken to the moral dimension of the ecological crisis.

The latest report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released last month at a meeting in Shanghai, contained very bad news. The panel’s previous report, issued five years ago, had cautiously concluded that human activity was “a discernible influence” in global warming, and had predicted a further spike in temperatures of 3 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit sometime in this century. This year’s I.P.C.C. update does not equivocate: for the first time human activity is categorically named the number one factor in the heating-up of the planet over the last 50 years. The projections are dire: Earth’s average temperature may well increase between 2.7 and 10.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century—with disastrous consequences.


These findings lend urgency to the ongoing negotiations over how to implement the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which calls upon three dozen industrialized nations to cut their combined emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases to roughly 5 percent below 1990 levels. From the outset, the sticking point has been how to go about achieving this goal. Poor countries have sought billions of dollars to help them adapt to climate change, while rich nations have aimed to blunt the economic impact of the treaty by finding the least costly way to reduce their emissions. The United States, which produces one quarter of the world’s fossil fuel emissions, has resisted making the kind of steep reductions Kyoto demands; instead, emissions have actually soared and are expected to rise by 35 percent by 2010.

The Clinton administration wanted an easy way out. Last November’s negotiations in The Hague broke down over how much credit big forested countries like the United States should get for photosynthesis—that is, for all the carbon dioxide that is removed from the atmosphere and stored for hundreds of years in soil and trees, particularly old growth forests. The Clinton administration had calculated that our vast forests, by absorbing 300 million tons of carbon a year, could help us get halfway to the pledged target under the Kyoto treaty. Rather than clamp down on smokestacks and tailpipes in our own back yard, the United States also prefers to pay for forest protection and “clean” technology in other countries, where costs are lower. Most of Europe, which has endured high fuel prices in part to meet tough emissions standards, finds U.S. tactics a devious way of getting a free ride.

Where will the Bush administration come down in these negotiations? Already Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has asked for a delay in the summit meeting planned for May in Bonn, Germany, in order to give his chief global warming negotiator time “to read himself in” on the complex issues. “I’m not going to let the U.S. carry the burden for cleaning up the world’s air, like the Kyoto treaty would have done,” said President Bush during the recent campaign. Of course no one is asking that, only that we carry our fair share. Although he opposes sharp cuts in the burning of fossil fuels and trusts free market mechanisms to cope with the problem, even Mr. Bush conceded during the campaign that global warming is scientifically established, and something must be done about it. The question, if we don’t want the whole world to look like sun-baked West Texas, is what?

The beginning of an answer came last November, right in the middle of the stalled Hague talks, when the U.S. Department of Energy issued a study headed by Dr. Marilyn Brown of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The study argued that we could go a long way toward cutting carbon dioxide emissions, the dominant greenhouse gas, by making some fairly simple, inexpensive changes in energy policy: 1) raise the standards for energy and fuel efficiency; 2) increase spending on government and private research into renewable energy sources like hydrogen fuels and solar, wind and geothermal power; and 3) adopt a national trading scheme for carbon dioxide cuts that gives industry a financial incentive to surpass required reductions in emissions. The payoff would not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but would also lower energy bills, lessen dependence on imported oil and reduce smog and acid rain. These modest policy changes would not constitute a full-fledged “ecological conversion,” but they would be a start.

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