Let 'Em Drown in the Dark

The recent ratification of the Kyoto Protocol by Europe and Japan means the treaty likely will go into effect by the end of this year. Most of the world's nations will then be legally obligated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within their borders by about l5 percent by 2010 and as much as 50 percent by 2050.

But not us. In one of his first acts in office, President Bush withdrew from the Protocol. And in an exquisite example of in-your-face timing, he recently made clear our position in a report delivered to the United Nations. The report accepts the reality of global warming but then brazenly announces that our country, already responsible for more than a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases, will boost emissions even further: by 40 percent by 2020, by more than 100 percent by 2050.

This puts us on a collision course with the rest of the world. What can our political leaders be thinking? At this moment in history do we really want to unmistakably declare our support of gluttony and wastefulness?

Make no mistake about it, this is the way it appears to nations straining to live within their resource budgets.

The same week the President announced his intention to make the world more vulnerable to climate change, he announced the most sweeping governmental reorganization since World War II with the creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. Does he not understand the connection?

Terrorists are challenging us to show that we care about the world, not only ourselves. I'm sure they are overjoyed when the President declares American engineers capable of building a system to destroy incoming missiles but incapable of building an SUV that gets more than 25 miles per gallon.

When it comes to global warming, the Bush Administration prefers adaptation. Such a strategy might work in this country, at least in the short run. But as Robert Watson, chief scientist of the World Bank, has said, "Those with the least resources have the least capacity to adapt." Harvard University scientist James McCarthy, after co-hosting a study on the impacts of global warming in which 700 scientists participated, concluded, "most of the Earth's people will be on the losing side."

For U.S. farmers, the US government recommends "changing planting dates and varieties." For the world's farmers, choosing different crops is not an option. At present, 1.7 billion people live in areas where water resources are tight. By 2025 this will increase to more than 5 billion.

In the United States global warming, in the short run, means that New Jersey may lose 100 feet of coastline. For the 44 members of the Association of Small Island States global warming may mean the disappearance of their countries. The Maldives, Papua New Guinea, the Marshall Islands and many others may all soon be under water.

In March, Tuvalu's Prime Minister Koloa Talaka announced that his nation is considering suing the US (and nearby Australia, which has the world's highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions) in the International Court of Justice for refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. We can expect more such actions. As Clive Hamilton of the Australia Institute says, "Tuvalu is doing no more than applying a basic principle of law--if someone does you harm, then you should be able to stop the aggressor from harming you and seek restitution."

As the Kyoto Protocol goes into effect, do we think the rest of the world will stand by and allow the United States to become an ever-greater violator of the rights of others? They won't. They'll respond, not militarily but economically. Already, under provisions of the Protocol, American farmers are ineligible from benefiting from one of the most promising strategies to ameliorate global warming: carbon sequestration. America's farmers could potentially receive tens of billions of dollars to use their soil to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They can't because we're not signatories.

We can be certain that at some point a boycott of American goods will emerge. In the context of Kyoto, it will not boycott American corporations but American-made products. If such a boycott were effective, American corporations may well side with the rest of the world. After all, they already manufacture a growing portion of their products abroad and could easily accelerate that process to minimize economic damage from a worldwide boycott.

While President Bush spits in the eye of the rest of the world on global warming, more and more American communities are looking to accept responsibility for their consumption habits.

In 2000, for example, Seattle adopted a policy of no new greenhouse gas emissions from the city after that date. By administrative order, New Jersey established a greenhouse gas reduction goal in 2000 and is making good progress meeting it. Recently, several New England Governors and eastern Canada premiers adopted a goal similar to that embraced in Kyoto. Massachusetts recently became the first state to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. California's two legislative chambers have passed a bill that would force new cars sold after 2008 to meet stringent greenhouse gas emissions. Over 100 cities are going through the process of signing onto the spirit of the Kyoto Protocols.

The federal government should not interfere with these efforts. That means allowing states and localities authority to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One way is to redefine all federal environmental standards as floors rather than ceilings, as minimums not maximums. Another way is to allow states to impose rigorous efficiency standards not only on houses but on appliances and cars.

By his actions this past month, President Bush has declared to the rest of the world that we define national security differently from them. He has asserted our intention to use an increasingly disproportionate share of the world's natural resources for our own consumption. And by implication, he has notified the world of our intention to use our military strength to enable us to do just that.

It is a remarkable message at a remarkable moment in world history.

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