The Great Global Dilemma

The international community has taken another stab at an existential dilemma - balancing increasing demand and shrinking resources - with doubtful results.

Last week, a special session of the United Nations General Assembly on environmental preservation and economic development spent four days discussing how a growing world population can be fed, clothed, housed, and given meaningful work while clean air, arable land, and fresh water steadily deteriorate.

The problem is neither new nor unfamiliar. A century ago, a Swedish scientist warned that carbon dioxide emissions could lead to global warming - the "greenhouse effect." His words were ignored or disputed. In 1972, the environment was first broached as a political issue at a UN conference in Stockholm. For all its urging, governments hardly responded. In 1992, the Rio de Janeiro conference prodded the parties into treaties and agreements serving "sustainable" development. Consciousness was certainly raised, but what action followed nowhere near kept pace with the problem.

Since Rio, the world's population has increased by 450 million; deforestation has continued at a rate of more than 27 million acres per year. Over the next century, with polar ice melting, the oceans are expected to rise between two and three feet. In his speech to the General Assembly last Thursday, President Clinton said that island nations like the Maldives would disappear from the map while 9,000 square miles of Florida, Louisiana, and other US coastal areas would be flooded. An estimated 60 percent of the world's people live within 60 miles of the sea, and many of the largest cities are practically at sea level.

The prospect is so frightening that 160 governments have signed a treaty seeking reductions of CO2 emissions, with the level to be set at a conference in Kyoto, Japan, this December. But there is sharp disagreement over that level. The US, which produces one-fifth of the world's greenhouse gases, has refused to commit itself to a specific limit. The Europeans have pledged a reduction by 2010 of 15 percent from the level of 1990. And Britain, Germany, Austria, and Denmark have set a target of 25 percent.

Mr. Clinton spoke only in general terms of a solution, and he was frank about the reason: "We have to first convince the American people and the Congress that the climate change problem is real and imminent."

The fact is that Americans pay less for gasoline and still less for heating oil than for bottled water. "Soccer moms" drive gas-guzzling family trucks and sport-utility vehicles. Air conditioners operate full blast. There is widespread refusal even to consider a more modest lifestyle. Energy taxes are unthinkable.

Outright opposition to quick action on climate change comes from oil-producing countries and assorted ideologues, and also from mainstream economic interests. For example, the insurance industry - which pays the cost of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires, and freezes - knows what global warming means. For the most part, however, American business is focused on jobs. So is the administration. And 61 members of the US Senate, which must ratify limits on CO2, are calling for further review of "the climate change issue." The message is clear.

What is also clear is the risk of inaction. Overuse and pollution limit the amount of fresh water available to humans and ecosystems. Water use has been growing at twice the 400 percent rate of population increase in this century. Stresses on water and land are closely linked. The UN Environmental Program finds that one-quarter of the earth's land is threatened by desertification. This is not only a matter of encroaching deserts. It is a global process of land degradation for various reasons, including climatic variations and human activities such as overgrazing, overcultivation, and felling trees for firewood and for lumber.

Perhaps the greatest peril of all is the difficulty humans have in looking beyond their immediate concerns and into the future.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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