Bush Uses Global Coalition to Fight Terror, But Not Polluters

Either you're with us or not, on the side of good or on the side of the evil ones. That's been the mantra of George W. Bush and his advisers as they have endeavored to gather overseas support for their global war on terrorism. If they consider taking such a position to be an effective tool of diplomacy, perhaps the rest of the world ought to adopt a similar stance regarding the United States and global warming: either you join us and give a damn about the future of the climate, or you don't and are an enemy of the atmosphere.

As Bush enjoyed a fortunate stretch (the encouraging collapse, or strategic retreat, of the Taliban and the successful, arms-cutting down-home summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin), the good news from Afghanistan overwhelmed the few media reports on the agreement reached by 165 countries -- not including, notably, the United States -- on a climate control treaty that establishes mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. As these nations hammered out pesky details of the Kyoto Protocol during a session in Morocco, the Bush administration lazed about on the sidelines.

That the conference succeeded in devising a set of rules was a blow to Bush. Earlier this year, he yanked the United States -- the leading producer of global warming gasses, such as carbon dioxide -- out of the Kyoto Protocol, declaring it would be too costly for the U.S. economy to abide by compulsory emissions reductions. And Sept. 11 did not alter the administration's attitude. So this is the current Bush position: the United States requests that the nations of the world assist it in protecting itself from an external threat, but the United States will not support a project to protect other nations (and itself) from environmental harm.

No doubt, the Bush administration had hoped that, with the United States out of the picture, other industrial nations would retreat ("Hey, why should we cut our greenhouse gasses, if America won't") and this would trigger the collapse of the Kyoto process. Then Bush could say, "Told you this was a bad deal, nobody's sticking with it." But the other countries -- including European partners in Bush's anti-terrorism coalition -- stayed the course.

The United States absence, though, did lead to a weak deal in Morocco. With Washington abstaining, other major emitters of global warming gasses possessed more clout, for any additional walk-outs could scuttle the whole accord. Consequently, Russia, Japan and Australia were able to win assorted loopholes -- as the delegates finalized details of a scheme that would grant nations emission credits for certain actions (such as protecting forests, which absorb carbon dioxide), and that would allow countries to buy and sell these credits. (For not cutting down a tree, a country can claim a credit. It can then sell that credit to another country, permitting the buyer to pollute more than it would otherwise be allowed to do.)

In a move that troubled environmentalists, the Morocco session doubled Russia's emissions credits. "That one piece turned Marrakesh into a Pyrrhic victory," says Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program. "Now, India and China will come along and ask for the same. They can say that Russia got to sell their forests and if you don't let us do that, you're racist." And were China and India -- up-and-coming emissions producers -- to receive the same deal, they would face less pressure to reduce emissions when it's their turn to cut back. (The Kyoto Protocol sensibly calls on the industrialized countries, which are responsible for 75 percent or so of the human-made carbon dioxide already pumped into the atmosphere, to start decreasing emissions before developing nations do so.)

Overall, the general framework of the Kyoto Protocol is a modest response to the problem of global warming -- which, according to the latest scientific estimates, could lead to a temperature rise of 10 degrees this century. The accord calls for the industrialized nations to reduce their total emissions 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. (The protocol, negotiated in 1997, called for the United States, which produces about 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gasses, to decrease its levels by 7 percent.) But such an emissions reduction, loopholes aside, will not stave off global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- an organization of climate scientists put together by the UN and the World Meteorological Organization -- notes that in order to stabilize greenhouse gasses at a level of 450 parts per million, industrialized nations after 2012 will have to "go significantly beyond their Kyoto Protocol commitments." Yet some climate scientists believe that the 450 ppm-level is too risky and that the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere should be stabilized at 350 ppm, which is close to the current figure. If they are right, the emissions levels of the Kyoto Protocol are far too permissive. And the treaty won't take effect until 55 nations, including those that produced 55 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (circa 1990), ratify it.

"Kyoto does look like a modest step," says David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center. "But it starts a process. When a supertanker captain begins to turn the wheel, you don't see much change at first. But that action does make a big change in where you end up. Kyoto gets the industrialized nations moving in the right direction."

But that pace of that movement will have to quicken dramatically in the years ahead. And the nations that care about global warming will have to persuade the United States to climb aboard this supertanker soon. While the environmental officials of 165 nations were meeting in Morocco, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that carbon dioxide emissions in the United States rose 3.1 percent in the last year. And U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are up 14 percent over 1990 levels. Were the United States to join the Kyoto system, it would have to slash emissions by 21 percent (14 percent to get back to 1990 levels and then an additional 7 percent). That's a tall order, one that lengthens every year the United States does nothing to curb emissions. The longer the United States waits, the harder the task will be, and the easier it will be for American politicians to complain the economic costs are too high.

Bush has acknowledged that global warming is under way and that it poses a serious problem. He has promised to present alternatives to mandatory emissions reductions. He has issued vague references to voluntary reductions and investments in technology. So far, though, he has not offered a substitute plan. He has not proposed any major increase in R&D for clean energy technologies. (That could serve as an effective economic stimulus. Instead of rebating taxes already paid by IBM, General Electric and other mega-corps, as House Republicans urge, the government would be better off pumping billions of dollars into the economy to subsidize consumer purchases of solar panels and hybrid cars.) When the Bush administration had a chance earlier this year to demonstrate it was serious about addressing global warming -- by accepting a strict energy efficiency standard written by the Clinton Administration for new air conditioners -- it took a pass and trashed the regulation. (Even the Bush EPA had backed implementation of this standard.)

Ultimately, within this century, there probably will have to be a near-complete transition from fossil fuels to non-carbon energy sources (hydrogen, solar, biomass and the like) to prevent the possibility of irreparable harm to the atmosphere. The NRDC notes that if human-caused greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere are to be limited to about 450 ppm -- a figure that may be above the danger level -- then the nations of the earth can release a total of a trillion tons of carbon dioxide into the air. (Normal air pollution can be dispersed by the wind; greenhouse gasses build up and stick around for a long time.) About 30 percent of that amount has already been tossed into the air -- from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the present. At current levels of emissions, another 30 percent of that trillion-ton limit will be spewed in the next 30 years. That does not allow much leeway for whoever may be around in the decades post 2030.

War, terrorism, anthrax. It's natural these immediate matters blow long-term issues off the screen. It's unfortunate -- especially for anyone living in low-lying, coastal regions -- that Bush does not understand that collective security extends beyond terms dictated by Washington. Bush asks other nations to feel America's pain and to respond to its fears, even if that entails sacrifice. Yet he turns away when scores of other nations come together to declare their concern and plead with the United States to join the fight. Since Bush does not deny the reality and the seriousness of global warming, the message he sends is clear: don't you dare expect American citizens to sacrifice for the common good. He asks for more than he is willing to give.

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