Kyoto and Beyond

On Wednesday, Feb. 16, the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change goes into effect to begin a global rescue mission. It's a historic first step. Yet the U.S., the top greenhouse gas producer hasn't signed on, and developing countries, including China and India, are exempt.

Even if every country in the world met Kyoto's goals it wouldn't save our children from the catastrophes a consensus of scientists predict. "Meeting the Climate Challenge," a report from the International Climate Change Task Force, warns we're approaching a point of no return. If we don't act decisively, average global temperatures could over decades rise almost 4 degrees Fahrenheit above 1750s levels. They're already up over 1 degree. We'd face agricultural failures, diseases, droughts and floods. Some experts forecast a 10-degree jump, much higher sea levels and possible abrupt, runaway changes to ocean currents.

Europe's 30,000 heat-wave casualties in 2003 and the four hurricanes that battered Florida's coasts may have been statistical flukes. Yet, especially for billions of coastal residents, these images, along with the earthquake-generated tsunami, are horrifying harbingers of future disruptions. Concerned citizens and leaders worldwide may now be more inclined to think about the unthinkable and our closing window of opportunity.

But how do you wake up a planet divided and mesmerized by political, social, economic, religious and cultural conflicts?

H.G. Wells and Ronald Reagan both said only an external threat could motivate humanity to see beyond our differences to common goals. In films like Armageddon and Deep Impact, unlikely personalities team up to avert collisions with asteroids – life-ending million-megaton warheads. This June, Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds remake will show us uniting against space invaders.

What if we redefine global warming as an asteroid barrage, hitting earth with deadly impacts through this century – and decide to defend ourselves? If enough of us become convinced that's our future, would that change global priorities?

If so, we still have time to conserve far more energy and find substitutes for most uses of coal, oil and gas. Unfortunately, we can't stop climate change entirely. But we can slow it way down.

There is a growing coalition to bring to market new vehicles known as "gas-optional" or "plug-in" hybrids. This missing technological link can triple gasoline efficiency and pave the way to zero-carbon cars. When skeptics warn how long it takes industry to introduce new automobiles, I remind them what happened after Pearl Harbor. When the War Production Board ordered tanks and aircraft engines, Detroit's factories re-tooled in under a year.

We can apply our abundant resources strategically and with similar determination. We can harness existing technologies, without awaiting R&D. Wind and photovoltaic power, improving batteries, a modernized electricity grid and conservation can take us very far. So do cellulose biofuel plantations and reforestation.

What would this transformation cost? A few percent of the gross global product for many decades – along with institutional and political changes giving us enormous economic and social benefits.

Today, fossil fuels seem cheaper than renewables only because we subsidize them. We pay their hidden costs with wars, diminished health and environmental damage. And who can estimate the full price our children will pay for climate change?

What's the cost of business as usual? Ask Californians to envision life with no Sierra snow pack for reservoirs, flood control or winter sports. Ask Central Valley farmers to feed the world from saltwater-soaked fields. Ask people living on coastlines that will become uninsurable, then uninhabitable. Then ask the Pentagon how often droughts, famines and epidemics fuel political instability.

What sounds like the better deal?

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