6 December 2004Darly Lindsey
Glaciers are melting in the Alps at an unprecedented rate. The polar ice caps are rapidly disappearing. Worst-case scenarios from scientists predict a dramatic increase in temperatures across much of the globe. For parts of the Northern Hemisphere, however, some scientists warn that ocean-current changes could produce radical cooling. Our world, so go such arguments, is about to change radically for the worse.But is it true? Can such reports be believed or is this all just tree-hugging, environmentalist tripe? The answer, as it turns out, may actually be a lot closer to home than the arctic and mountain-range peaks. Concrete signs that global warming's effects are already upon us are mounting. In 2002, catastrophic floods struck Europe causing $16 billion in damage. Florida's historical wave of hurricanes this year caused $25 billion in damage, a storm series that many attribute to a changing climate. And the latest scientific report, published jointly last week by the Hadley Center for Climate Prediction and Research and Oxford University, both in England, attributed Europe's record-breaking 2003 heat wave, which killed up to 35,000 people, to man-made pollution. Meanwhile, one of the world's largest civil works projects is currently under construction in Venice, Italy; 79 massive gates are being built to keep the increasingly invasive ocean waters out. In 1900, the city's central jewel St. Mark's Square flooded an average of 7 times per annum -- today seawater covers the beautiful piazza more than one quarter of the year. A growing chorus of scientists believe global warming has worsened the city's problems. The European Environment Agency (EEA) recently issued a report saying that European temperatures are rising faster than the global average. "What the report shows," says Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the EEA, "is that, if we go on as we are, we have less than 50 years before we encounter conditions which will be uncharted and potentially hazardous."As it turns out, the debate is no longer whether global warming can be 100 percent proven but rather how the catastrophe will unfold and whether it can be stopped. Sure there are those who are still skeptical and the lack of a convincing missing link still gives the doubters all the ammunition they need to sit around and do next to nothing. But mounting circumstantial evidence has even been enough to cause even erstwhile non-believers like US President George W. Bush to slowly make a U-turn on the issue. Unfortunately, he too is sitting on his hands -- his newfound global warming worries haven't yet translated into policy. And the clock continues to tick.It is exactly this situation that the Kyoto Protocol is meant to address. Indeed, it has been bandied about by many in Europe as a lifeline for Europe's and the world's environmental future and Russia's November ratification of the treaty was widely celebrated in Europe because it means that the Kyoto Protocol now has the critical mass it needs to go into effect on Feb. 16. A flawed treaty?But will it change anything? There are, to be sure, major problems with it. Without the participation of the United States, which produces more than one-third of the world's greenhouse gases, the treaty will have little tangible impact -- a fact even Kyoto-friendly environmentalists concede. Nor will the US be putting anything on the table this week at the United Nations climate change summit at Buenos Aires, Argentina this week. Last week, US climate negotiator Harlan Watson said the US "does not anticipate signing any new agreements" and that it is "premature" to assign targets beyond the initial 2012 reductions. More than that, the treaty has been pulled like Phoenix from the ashes more than once, and what's left following round after round of concession-making is something pretty close to a featherless bird. Many critics say it won't ever take flight, with most countries currently on track to miss their stated emissions targets. The UN climate secretariat recently estimated that instead of reducing emissions by 5.2 percent between 1990 and 2010 as conceived in Kyoto, greenhouse gas levels will actually rise in that period by 10 percent in industrial nations.The trend in developing and newly industrialized nations like China and India is even more shocking. To protect their growing economies, they aren't even obligated by the treaty to reduce their emissions levels. By some estimates, emissions by developing countries will exceed the total emissions of the industrial nations within several decades. Since 1990, CO2 emissions in the industrializing world have already risen by more than half. European Union struggling to hit Kyoto goalsThe EU, the self-appointed trailblazer of Kyoto, isn't doing so well itself. Despite a stagnating economy, greenhouse gas emissions in Europe have been rising recently. "If we don't do more, we'll miss our Kyoto targets," former European Commissioner for the Environment Margot Wallstrom said last year. According to a forecast made by her agency, only 2 of the then-15 EU member states would meet their Kyoto criteria. Thirteen would fail, including Germany.Then, of course, there's the emission trading system built in to Kyoto that has more loopholes in it than Swiss cheese. Industrialized nations get extra credits if they invest in feel-good clean-energy projects or efforts to save carbon dioxide-absorbing forests in developing nations. As a result, Kyoto is attracting an increasing number of critics.But here's the thing. It's the only thing going at the moment. And calling the setting of benchmarks "premature," as the US does, is irresponsible to the point of being criminal. Scientists predict that if carbon dioxide levels double from their pre-industrial level of 275 parts per million -- and we're at 370 parts per million today and well on track to reaching the breaking point of 550 ppm -- we could face even more dramatic consequences than those already beginning. Massive changes in weather, droughts, and rising sea levels that would flood dozens of coastal cities will become a reality. D-Day will likely come during the middle of this century. Germany, which long ago moved to increase the production renewable energies, has recognized the problems with Kyoto, and, rather then using those problems as an excuse to do nothing, is pledging to do more. The country is calling on the European Union to commit to a 30 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, a move that would cut the total level of emissions in Germany by 40 percent as compared with 1990 levels. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Washington's closest ally in the war in Iraq, has likewise recognized climate dangers and has called for a "green revolution." He is committing to the target of a 60 percent reduction by 2050. 129 countries around the world, including Russia and the rest of Europe, likewise don't think action is premature and all have joined Kyoto.A post-Kyoto visionLutz Wicke, a professor at Berlin's European School of Management and author of the new book Beyond Kyoto: A New Global Climate Certification System, is likewise using criticism of the treaty as a call to do more. He says the emissions trading plan in Kyoto is a toothless, since it only includes industrial nations and doesn't require any commitments from developing nations. By not forcing developing nations to reduce their emissions, he argues, the Europeans have shot themselves in the foot. "Industrial nations won't reach the 5.2 percent goal because of the US," he says. "But the Europeans won't achieve that goal either. The industrial countries are supposed to take the lead, but they won't." That's why he's calling for a serious reform of Kyoto.Otherwise, developing nations will have little reason to cooperate. In the long run, it will also exacerbate the situation for the West. The German government has warned that the sharp rise in emissions in developing nations will require an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by industrial nations in order to compensate.In his book, Wicke advocates establishing an emissions trading system that would give everyone the same emissions rights, including India and China. His system would allot tradable credits based on the size of a country's population. He says the system would include price caps to prevent India and China, which each have a population of over 1 billion, from upsetting the fragile global economy. But it would have just enough punch, he argues, to get industrial nations to cut their emissions and bring developing and newly industrialized nations on track to sustainable and climate-friendly development. By making it hit their pocketbooks, Wicke believes citizens of the world will begin to take a greater interest in reducing greenhouse gases. Wicke argues the system would also give India, Pakistan and China incentive to reduce greenhouse gas emission because they could stand to earn between $3 to $7 billion by selling unused credits each year."A breakthrough for climate protection"The point is this: Kyoto's weaknesses cannot be used as an excuse to ignore the problem. Kyoto is the best option because it sets the stage for the future. It represents the first time that 129 nations of the world have come together in an effort to stop global warming. "This is a breakthrough for international climate protection," German Environment Minister Juergen Trittin said on Thursday, making the government's official policy statement on Kyoto's implementation. "We have achieved the multilateral approach to a global environmental policy. For the first time there is a constitutionally binding upper limit on the emission of greenhouse gases. The fact that it is coming into effect is a signal that can't be ignored -- the international community of states is taking climate change seriously. Climate change is no longer a skeptical forecast -- it's a bitter reality."Kyoto has become a household name that is synonymous with the massive challenges our civilization faces in the coming decades. One can argue that it would be better to wait for a better agreement than to sign a flawed one, but Kyoto in no way precludes greater reductions in greenhouse gases -- not now and not in the future. To not participate is borderline cynicism. After all, would there have been a United Nations if it had not been preceded by the League of Nations? Besides, previous environmental treaties provide models for a successful international fight against global warming: The Montreal Protocol, which went into force in 1989 has led to a 90 percent reduction in the production and consumption of products containing chlorofluorocarbons, the chemicals responsible for the giant hole in the ozone layer.Kyoto will not save the world, but it might just keep us from destroying it any more than we already have. As Trittin said, "Kyoto is just the first step on this path -- further, more ambitious ones must follow." The decision by the Bush administration to oppose Kyoto is one that could haunt Americans for generations to come. It could also cost them dearly, with the questions about global warming shifting from whether it exists to a forward-looking, "How countries and companies can be held accountable for it?" As the French playwright Moliere once wrote: "It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable."