21st Century Weather

Why atmosphere is warmer on climate warming

British Petroleum, Dupont, Ford, Tokyo Electric, Norsk Hydro, Asea Brown Boveri.

The names could easily head a blue ribbon list of global smokestack industries. But they comprise, in fact, a list of firms that have been quietly funding research to help slow global warming.

Why is this important? Can't nations at the UN proceed to adopt and enforce restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions? Don't "green" movements, and parties, in many major nations have the clout to defy Mark Twain's maxim that nobody does anything about the weather?

Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is "no." Unless major industries join the effort to slow climate change, governments simply won't go far beyond ringing rhetoric.

Why industries hold the key

Really? Do industries, even giants, hold that much sway over governments? Perhaps not. But voters do in most crucial nations. And the major global industries, taken together, employ tens of millions of people and transport, house, warm, light, clothe, and feed hundreds of millions more.

Which explains why it's important that in Washington and Bonn in late July and early August climatologists, political leaders, and some heads of big industries edged closer to doing something to slow one heavily suspect source of planetary warming: the burning of fossil fuels.

Nobelists talk climate

First, Washington. At the end of July, President Clinton and the public were briefed by seven scientists, three of them Nobelists, at the forefront of climate research. In cautious words they made it clear that climate change is for real. (A report by one of the seven will appear on the Monitor's opinion page Aug. 8.)

Clinton's two carrots

The president then urged leading US industrialists to join moves to restrict greenhouse gas emissions. To win their support, he assured them that any deal he signs at an international climate conference in Kyoto, Japan, in December would have to include two concessions: (1) Developing nations' industries must abide by the same fossil fuel burning restraints as industries in developed nations. (Aim: to avoid a mass flight of factories and jobs to developing lands.) (2) A "flexible," market-based approach would be used in imposing emissions limits. (That means gas exhaust limits could be sold by firms that exceed requirements to those slower to meet them - as long as overall national goals are met.)

Is US moving beyond rhetoric?

In Bonn, a week later, word that the US might move beyond rhetoric and join European leaders gained credibility. So did the message that some major firms had broken ranks with fossil fuel industries maintaining there is no solid evidence linking emissions to global warming.

BP speeds solar

As we noted in June, British Petroleum has taken a lead in research to curb carbon dioxide and other fossil fuel emissions. BP has also pledged to turn its growing solar power unit into a $1 billion (sales) business by century's end.

Which brings us back to that sample roster of firms at the start of this editorial. Some are investing on their own in research aimed at reducing industrial emissions. Others are backing a research consortium of universities including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Tokyo, and the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology. Those techno-universities are conducting research aimed at curbing a whole range of environmental problems while still permitting poorer nations to grow and prosper.

Cleaner coal burning

They are, for instance, working with Chinese government and university researchers to develop cleaner coal burning technologies. That could have a major impact on 21st century climate. China has huge coal reserves. And as its rapid growth continues it is expected to pass the US as the major source of greenhouse gases. (Mr. Clinton reminded industrialists that America, with only 4 percent of the world's population, produces 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.)

Clean and prosperous?

The three-university consortium, known as the Alliance for Global Sustainability, is also working on a whole range of cleaner energy sources. And it has begun to explore the possibilities of less dangerous chemical substitutes for some widely used chlorine compounds.

We are convinced that both (1) major environmental improvements in industrial processes and (2) the spread of human prosperity are possible. For that reason we believe future generations cannot help but benefit from the spirit of cooperation now beginning to grow among industries, government, and environmentalists.

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