The Greenhouse Defect

Mixed reviews went to the US-as-environmental-leader while representatives of 150 nations met in Bonn last week to prepare for December's world Climate Summit in Kyoto, Japan.

The United States ranked at the bottom of one scorecard on the attitudes and progress of industrial countries in the battle against global warming. A US envoy denied charges that his country was stalling international negotiations to reduce emission of the "greenhouse" gases linked to global warming.

Naturally the US gets major scrutiny. It is the major emitter of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas from burning fossil fuels such as oil and coal, accounting for an estimated 22 percent of the world total.

And leadership is required from President Clinton, whose campaign mantra featured the environment along with education, Medicare, and Medicaid. The US joined other industrial countries in agreeing to bring carbon dioxide emissions down to 1990 levels by 2000. But the viewers-with-alarm say Washington is not doing enough to reach that goal, as US emissions continue to rise.

Indeed, since the agreement is not binding, few nations are expected to meet it. But Britain has committed itself to the 1990 emissions level by 2000. And the environmental ministers of the 15-member European Union agreed to a 15 percent cut in greenhouse gases from the 1990 level by 2010.

They recognize that reducing emissions is a good in itself - whatever the effect on global warming in the unpredictable ups and downs of weather.

"Certainly the natural greenhouse effect is established beyond reasonable scientific doubt, accounting for natural warming that has allowed the coevolution of climate and life to proceed to this point," writes leading climatologist Stephen Schneider in his latest book, "Laboratory Earth." He adds: "The extent to which human augmentation of the natural greenhouse effect (that is, global warming) will prove serious is, of course, the current debate."

While the seriousness of that human augmentation through greenhouse gases is being pinned down, it would be reckless to simply keep increasing emissions. Thus the international meetings and commitments are important, as is the exploration of sometimes controversial methods of reducing overall global emissions. One of these is the so-called "emissions trading" through which a country could reduce emissions less while paying another to reduce emissions more, causing a net global reduction.

Presidential leadership is demanded to keep momentum going. But a push also must come from aroused citizens taking the interest to inform themselves of risks and benefits. As surely as summit policies, millions of individuals can reduce global-warming emissions by using energy efficiently.

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