Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Hot and Bothered

By Debbie Gilbert

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  Realistically, no one expected a resounding success. When delegates from more than 170 nations gathered in Kyoto, Japan, during the first 10 days of December to decide what to do about global warming, the goal was for all parties to sign a binding agreement to lower their emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases believed to contribute to the greenhouse effect.

Problem was, the parties couldn’t agree on how much that reduction should be or how soon it should happen. Each country was at a different stage of development; each had its own economic situation to consider. Third World countries contended that the United States, as the world’s top emitter of carbon dioxide, should have to make greater sacrifices, and that their own nations should be exempt from pollution controls, which could hinder efforts to improve their standard of living.

President Clinton, however, was constrained by Congress’ pre-Kyoto declaration that it would not ratify any treaty that did not include restrictions on developing nations. And Congress did have a point. China’s per-capita emissions are only one-seventh that of the U.S., but China is already the planet’s second-biggest emitter, and its society is on a fast track toward modernization.

Imagine the atmospheric impact when a majority of China’s 1.2 billion citizens have automobiles. It’s projected that by 2030, developing nations will be responsible for 50 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions; so yes, it seems right that they should accept reduction targets, albeit over a period of years.

But every nation had its own agenda in Kyoto. The European Union, having already cleaned up its act, wanted everyone else to agree to substantial cuts in emissions. Oil-producing countries of the Middle East would agree to cuts only if they were compensated for lost exports. And tiny island nations, which would be swallowed up by the sea if global warming causes the oceans to rise, wanted the biggest cuts of all.

None of this was surprising. What was unsettling was the number of pundits who came out of the woodwork to question whether global warming is real. Obviously, the world’s governments thought the threat was real enough, or they wouldn’t have gone through the trouble and expense of convening a summit in Kyoto.

The conference came about because of a report released last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an office of the United Nations Environment Programme. There was a consensus among climate scientists that atmospheric warming had already begun and could be expected to increase, and that it was likely caused by human activity.

A small but vociferous band of naysayers disputes this conclusion, arguing that projections of warming are based on flawed computer models, and that stricter pollution controls to head off a nonexistent crisis will jeopardize our economy.

But nothing in science is 100 percent certain, and there are two good reasons for reducing our greenhouse-gas emissions now, even if we don’t know for sure whether the Earth is heating up. First of all, if warming is occurring and we don’t take action, the consequences could be disastrous, including flooding of coastal cities (where about half of the world’s population lives), decreased agricultural production, and species extinctions.

Secondly, even if global warming doesn’t happen, we should seize this moment to begin weaning our society away from its dependence on fossil fuels – a finite resource – and to make an all-out push to develop renewable energies. Will this cost jobs in the oil and coal industries? Maybe. But with the U.S. economy now as healthy as it’s ever been, there couldn’t be a better time to get started.

Besides, new EPA regulations will soon require state and local governments to adopt tighter emissions controls anyway, so a “wait-and-see” position makes no sense. Stop the pollution, and everybody wins.

Debbie Gilbert reports on the environment for the Flyer.

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