Environment

USA: Wanted for Crimes Against the Planet

World leaders recognize that time is running out to halt global warming, but the next Congress needs understand just how high the stakes really are.
World temperatures are rising to levels not seen in at least 12,000 years. Greenland's ice mass is melting at "what what NASA calls a 'dramatic' rate of 41 cubic miles per year." And unless climate change is reined in, "extreme drought could eventually affect one-third of the planet." More than 5,000 activists, scientists, and diplomats understand these facts and have gathered in Nairobi, Kenya for the annual two-week U.N. Climate Change Conference, which is now in its final three days. As U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, "The stakes are high. ... Yet too often climate change is seen as an environmental problem when it should be part of the broader development and economic agenda." The Bush administration and the 109th Congress haven't understood these stakes. Hopefully, the 110th Congress will. Incoming Senate Environment and Public Works chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) recently said, "Time is running out, and we need to move forward on this." The Bush administration's chief climate negotiator, however, promised conference participants that the White House would continue to do as little as possible.

Conference Against Climate Change

The Nairobi conference is the 12th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It is second meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, a portion of which the Bush administration will not be attending. The United States and Australia are the only major industrialized countries to reject the Kyoto Protocol, which "requires 35 industrialized countries to reduce those emissions by 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012." Some of the main agenda items at the conference are securing commitments to reduce greenhouse gases under Kyoto for the period after 2012 and helping poor countries manage climate change. (At the 2006 Clinton Global Initiative, the Center for American Progress made a commitment to help poor countries enter the global carbon-trading system.) "We are all gathered...on behalf of mankind because we acknowledge that climate change is rapidly emerging as one of the most serious threats humanity will ever face," Kenyan Vice President Moody Awori told delegates in an opening speech. Delegates are also receiving "a closed-door preview of the latest scientific findings on a warming world, to be published next year in a comprehensive U.N. assessment by the world's leading climate scientists." This report -- which will offer "much stronger" evidence and "authoritative new data" on manmade global warming -- may provide "just the right impetus to get the negotiations going in a more purposeful way," according to the group's chief scientist.

Fuzzy Climate Math

President Bush and his administration have faced especially harsh criticism at the conference. Over the weekend, Kenyan children led a march through Nairobi and called on industrialized nations to do more to fight climate change. One man carried a poster of President Bush reading: "Wanted -- For Crimes Against the Planet." U.K. Environment Secretary David Miliband said, "It's absolutely vital that the United States is party to the global commitment that is necessary. I can think of no greater legacy for President Bush in his last two years of office than to lead a bi-partisan drive to put the United States at the heart of global emissions reductions." But no bipartisan drive is likely from Bush. On Monday, chief U.S. climate negotiator Harlan Watson defended the Bush administration's stand against compulsory caps on global-warming emissions: "I certainly got no indication that there's any change in our position, nor is there likely to be during this presidency." He added that the United States "is doing better at voluntarily restraining the growth of such gases than some countries that are committed to reductions under the Kyoto Protocol." Watson cited a U.N. report that showed "growth in U.S. emissions in 2000-04 was 1.3 percent, compared with 2.4 percent overall for 41 industrialized nations." But as Forbes notes, "When compared with Kyoto's 1990 benchmark, however, the picture is different. ... [E]missions of all industrialized countries declined by 3.3 percent between 1990 and 2004, while U.S. emissions grew by almost 16 percent. Among the Kyoto-obligated countries, Germany's emissions dropped 17 percent between 1990 and 2004, Britain's by 14 percent and France's by almost 1 percent."

A Lack of Investment

The United States is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, responsible for 25 percent of global emissions. According to a new study released by Climate Action Network Europe at the Nairobi conference, the United States ranks 53rd in climate change performance of the 56 top carbon dioxide-emitting nations. Bush has contended that the Kyoto Protocol would be too expensive to implement and continues to shirk his campaign commitment to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. "If the USA, currently among the bottom five, were to exercise an international climate policy stance as progressive as the UK, it would move up more than 30 places," notes the Climate Action study, "but because of their adverse position in national and international climate policies the United States blows this chance." Annual federal spending for research energy and development has fallen from an inflation-adjusted peak of $7.7 billion in 1979 to just $3 billion in the current budget. Bush has "sought an increase to $4.2 billion for 2007, but that would still be a small fraction of what most climate and energy experts say would be needed." In contrast, funding for military research has increased 260 percent and is now at more than $75 billion a year.

Hope in a New Congress

Environmentalists likely won't miss the 109th Congress. Twice in three years, the Senate has rejected a bill from Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT) that would have limited greenhouse gas emissions. Other more aggressive bills by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) in the Senate and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) in the House have not received a vote. Senate Environment and Public Works chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) has been one of America's most vocal climate skeptics, calling global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" and the Kyoto Protocol "alot of economic pain for no climate gain." (He's wrong.) But when the 110th Congress takes office in January, the new chairwoman, Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has promised to begin "avery long process of extensive hearings" on global warming and hopes to put together a global warming bill that addresses all contributors to carbon dioxide emissions. "He [Inhofe] thinks global warming is a hoax and I think it is the challenge of our generation," Boxer said recently. "We have to move on it." In the House, Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), who is poised to take over as the Energy and Commerce Committee, is expected to hold a series of hearings on global warming. Incoming chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, Henry Waxman, will likely "conduct extensive oversight of federal agency efforts on environmental and energy matters, primarily climate change."
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