How warm will it get?
Planet earth walks a tightrope as industrial nations cobble together a plan to limit emissions of industrial gases. It represents a first time ever effort at managing a planetary system.
In 2001, delegates from 160 nations dipped their toes into uncharted waters. They completed work on an agreement to trim industrial emissions of gases believed to be warming Earth's climate.Skip to next paragraph
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In 2002, the world will see whether the right combination of 55 countries mounts the high dive and takes the plunge to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol - an environmental pact whose provisions reach deeper into the economic machinery of sovereign nations than any before it.
If the protocol enters into force, it could mark a watershed in humanity's relationship with its home. For the first time, countries will have adopted a common set of rules in an attempt to manage a planetary system - global climate.
"Population growth, soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, changes in atmospheric chemistry, these are the major trends" that humans have triggered, changing the character of the landscape, oceans, and atmosphere on time scales far faster than Earth's processes alone typically operate, explains Hartmut Grassl, director of the climate-process research department at the Max Plank Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany.
Humans have become such a significant force of nature in their own right, Dr. Grassl notes, that humanity no longer can sit back and let nature take its course. The Kyoto Protocol represents "the first step toward Earth-system management," he concludes.
The protocol commits industrial countries to reduce their collective carbon-dioxide emissions by an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Within that average, some countries faced double-digit reductions, while others, such as Russia, have carbon to burn, thanks to the selection of a base year when its economy was in a tailspin.
As 2001 opened, the political landscape for dealing with climate change looked increasingly barren, even as the scientific consensus strengthened that human industrial activity is at least partly responsible for the climate's warming.
Efforts to finish the ground rules for implementing the Kyoto Protocol at a UN-sponsored global climate conference at The Hague in November 2000 collapsed at the last minute when the US and the European Union failed to close the remaining gap between already-narrowed differences on a key provision.
Without ground rules, no industrial nation was willing to ratify the accord. And although the meeting ended in failure, UN officials adjourned it, rather than gaveling it closed. Instead, they eventually scheduled a continuation of the meeting in Bonn for the following July to complete their work.
In the interim, two events in early 2001 galvanized global efforts to pick up the pieces. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a summary of its third five-year report assessing the state of climate-system science. Based on additional research conducted during the preceding half decade, the IPCC's science working group concluded that "most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations."
This marked its strongest statement yet that carbon-dioxide and other emissions from human industrial activity - burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas - were contributing to a 0.6 degree Celsius (1.1 degree Fahrenheit) average increase in global temperatures since the late 19th century.
As if to underscore the temperature trends, the World Meteorological Organization last week issued its preliminary look at weather and climate in 2001. The year looks to be the second warmest on record, after 1998. The WMO noted that while global average surface temperatures have risen at 0.6 degree per century, the rate of increase nearly tripled during the past 25 years, to 1.7 degrees C.
The second prod came in March, when President Bush announced that the US would not take part in further negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol. US negotiators were to jump in only if US interests were jeopardized. The move stunned countries participating in the talks. Ultimately, it caused key countries to reach an agreement. They cleared political logjams in Bonn in July, then completed work on the legal language in Marrakesh, Morocco, last month.
Negotiators and UN officials hope to see the treaty in force by late August 2002, when delegates meet in Johannesburg, South Africa, for a conference that marks the 10th anniversary of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The Earth Summit led to the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the US ratified, and its Kyoto Protocol.