The Global Citizen: The Greenhouse Problem

Listening to climate change talk in the U.S. and in Europe, I have to wonder whether we're all living on the same planet.Several European governments have detailed plans for cutting their economies' 1990 fossil fuel use (hence emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide) by 15 or 20 percent by the year 2005.Meanwhile the U.S. president has generously offered to get U.S. emissions back down to their 1990 level -- twice as high per capita as the European level -- by the year 2008 or 2010 or maybe 2012.Members of the European press don't ask me whether global warming is real. They take seriously the consensus of the 2400 scientists who participate in the ongoing global forum called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They ask "what can be done?" and "why is the United States such a laggard on this issue?"Meanwhile American reporters seem to be mesmerized by a handful of scientific doubters, most of them funded by coal or oil companies, utilities, or right-wing think tanks. The doubters point to every uncertainty in climate science, while ignoring the certainties.Not a scientist in the world doubts that carbon dioxide traps heat or that burning oil, coal, or gas releases carbon dioxide. No one questions the measurements that show carbon dioxide increasing in the atmosphere. Starting at about 270 parts per million 100 years ago, its concentration is now above 360 parts per million. The global climate conference in Kyoto this December will decide whether we should try to level off at 450, 750, or 1000 parts per million, all of which would require significant reductions of current greenhouse gas emissions, and all of which are almost sure to cause major changes in the climate. But Americans still are told there might not be a problem.American industry just beamed into Washington DC $200,000 worth of radio spots in which a Harry and Louise couple complain that protecting the climate could raise gasoline price by 50 cents a gallon.Europeans pay four times as much for gas as we do without whining about their sacred right to drive minivans. They compete on the global market while driving high-mileage cars and riding attractive, convenient, efficient mass transit systems. Europe subsidizes trains and trams; America subsidizes highways and parking lots.Last month at a business conference in Salzburg European executives were waving around a best-selling German book called Faktor Vier -- Factor Four (by Ernst von Weizsacker of the Wuppertal Institute in Germany and Amory and Hunter Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute in the U.S.). The book shows how industrial society could get four times as much productivity out of energy and materials with known technologies at costs that are not only affordable, but probably negative.That is to say, we could run our economy while reducing our assault on the atmosphere by 75 percent. Or double economic output, while cutting emissions in half. Faktor Vier is crammed with case studies of companies, buildings, towns, banks, cars, farms, all of which have reduced energy or resource consumption, typically by that factor of four. In almost every case, not only have energy and material costs gone down, but labor productivity, comfort, and convenience have gone up.The European executives were asking: How do we all do this? They talked of innovative technologies that could get Europe to Factor Ten -- a 90 percent reduction, which is what it would actually take, worldwide, to stabilize the climate.In America, the Global Climate Information Project, a coalition of business associations, has budgeted $13 million for a public relations blitz to convince Americans that reducing fossil fuel consumption would cause economic collapse.Europeans, who are exposed to more education and less PR than Americans, question that claim. It assumes, they point out, that the only way to cut energy use is through massive taxes. It doesn't count the savings not only from buying less energy, but from having less air pollution, fewer oil spills, better health, less dependency on foreign supplies -- not to mention a more stable climate. It assumes that technology will freeze, rather than shift to greater efficiencies and new energy sources. It is, in short, a piece of propaganda.The proposed Kyoto treaty will be unfair, U.S. industry says, because it will require us to sacrifice, but not Mexico, China, India, or other low-income countries. The Europeans I talk to believe that those countries, whose fossil fuel use per person is a fraction of ours but rising fast, should be helped not to follow our wasteful technological path. The way to do that, they think, is to demonstrate the new path ourselves.Before he boldly promised the status quo, Bill Clinton made another speech in which he said the U.S. could reduce greenhouse gas emissions "by 20 percent tomorrow with technology that is already available at no cost." He's probably too optimistic about the "tomorrow" part -- it will take a few years -- but not nearly optimistic enough about the 20 percent. In Europe they're talking about wasting 20 or 50 or 90 percent less energy and helping the environment and moving away from the dirty technologies of the past century into the clean ones of the next centuryWhy on earth don't we try to beat the Europeans to it?(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.)

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