Bush's gambit on climate

In withdrawing from an international treaty on climate change, President Bush is not only undermining allies, sabotaging US diplomatic credibility, and courting major environmental disruptions.

He is also turning his back on a huge surge in jobs and economic growth that would accompany an appropriate response to the climate crisis.

The president is correct in saying that the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to fight global warming is flawed - but not for the reasons he puts forward. It is flawed because its targets are far too low in the face of an increasingly disruptive climate.

More than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries who comprise the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently determined that the climate is changing far more quickly than was initially projected - and that the systems of the planet are far more sensitive to even a small degree of warming than they had initially anticipated.

With our burning of coal and oil, we are warming the deep oceans, melting the world's glaciers, propelling the spread of insect-borne diseases, changing the timing of the seasons, and fueling a wave of violent and chaotic weather. All that has resulted from a temperature increase over the past century of 1 degree F. By contrast, the panel on climate change now projects temperatures to rise later in this century by 5 to 10 degrees F.

The community of mainstream climate scientists agrees that humanity must cut its coal and oil emissions by about 70 percent to return the climate to stability - an order of magnitude greater than the 5 to 7 percent cuts envisioned by the protocol.

Absent those worldwide reductions, the economic impacts will be staggering. Britain's biggest property insurer estimated in November that, unchecked, the impacts of climate change could bankrupt the global economy by 2065. Last month, Munich Reinsurance - one of the world's largest insurance firms - estimated climate impacts will cost the world about $300 billion a year beginning in the next few decades.

In pulling out of the climate talks, the president echoed the complaint of Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska and others that the treaty is unfair to the US because it exempts developing countries from the first round of emissions cuts.

Ironically, it was Bush's father, former President George Bush, who approved their exemption when he signed the 1992 Rio Treaty on the Environment. The exemption was based on the fact that, since developed countries created the lion's share of the problem - and have more resources to address it - they should take the lead in curbing emissions and developing countries would follow in subsequent rounds of the protocol.

That provision of the protocol has not deterred countries such as the Netherlands, Britain, and Germany - all of which are planning on cutting their emissions in the range of 50 to 80 percent over the next half century.

But there is much more at stake than the US keeping its diplomatic word.

Growing numbers of US-based corporations have saturated the domestic market and see their future growth coming from emerging markets. If the president had been able to impose energy cutbacks in India, China, Mexico, and the rest of the developing world, we would see massive job losses in companies such as Boeing, Gillette, Proctor & Gamble, Coca Cola, and scores of other corporations whose growth depends on healthy developing-country markets.

On the other hand, were the US to heed the requirements of nature and spearhead a global transition to high-efficiency and noncarbon energy sources, that effort would result in a dramatic expansion of the overall wealth in the global economy.

If the president does have in mind an alternative to the Kyoto Protocol, it would seem to have a better chance at success if it conformed to trends within the energy industry rather than to the conservative ideology of some of his advisers.

The world's major oil companies all acknowledge the reality of global warming, and many are positioning themselves to be prominent players in a new, low-carbon energy economy.

British Petroleum, which has become the world's largest vendor of solar energy systems, anticipates doing $1 billion a year in solar commerce by the end of the decade. Shell is creating a new $500 million core company in renewable energy. Texaco has invested substantial resources in fuel cells. Ford and Daimler-Chrysler are involved in a $1 billion joint venture to produce fuel-cell-powered cars by 2004. And a year ago, the CEOs of the world's 1,000 largest corporations attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, voted climate change the most urgent problem facing humanity.

These executives are keenly aware of potentially severe economic damages from an increasingly unstable climate. They understand that a properly structured program to rewire the planet with solar, wind, and hydrogen-based energy sources would create millions of jobs - especially in poorer countries. It would raise living standards abroad without compromising ours. It would turn impoverished and dependent countries into much more robust trading partners.

But time is short. A team of scientists writing in the peer-reviewed journal Nature estimated that the world needs to derive half its energy from noncarbon sources by 2018 to prevent a quadrupling of atmospheric carbon levels. That kind of increase in heat-trapping "greenhouse" gases would be clearly catastrophic. We have a very short window of time in which we can, at the same time, begin to pacify the climate and heal the human economic environment, as well.

President Bush's retreat into isolationism does not bode well for our future relations with Europe. It bodes even worse for our future relations with nature.

Ross Gelbspan, a retired journalist, is author of 'The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, the Cover-up, the Prescription' (Perseus Books, 1998).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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