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Evidence shows earth imperiled by climate

NCR Staff

As negotiators gather in Geneva this summer to discuss the means of adhering to environmental agreements signed four years ago in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a new report details the dangerous pace of global climate change caused by the emission of gases resulting from use of fossil fuels.

The report was released by the Worldwatch Institute, an independent, nonprofit environmental research organization based in Washington.

"Scientists believe that the coming period of rapid climate change is likely to be erratic, disruptive and unpredictable," said the report. "According to recent studies, the incidence of floods, droughts, fires and heat outbreaks will probably increase as global temperatures rise. In fact, some of these changes may already have begun."

A 1995 statement issued by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that "a pattern of climatic response to human activities is identifiable in the climatological record," according to the Worldwatch report.

Based on temperature records since 1866, the global average temperature on the earth's surface in the 1990s has been the highest so far. "It is striking that all 10 of the warmest years since record-keeping began have occurred since 1980," the report said.

The report noted other local and regional trends. Five major ice shelves in Antarctica have disintegrated. There are chronic water shortages in 80 countries. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes are spreading into temperate regions.

Scientists are also evaluating the effect of climate change on the frequency and severity of storms. The United States and China have experienced reduced harvests due to extreme weather. The warming of sea temperatures could also increase the destructive power of hurricanes and storm winds and lengthen the hurricane season.

Insurance companies have lost $57 billion in weather-related claims in the first half of the 1990s, compared to $17 billion in all of the 1980s. Several insurance companies have joined in lobbying efforts with the Alliance of Small Island States, composed of 36 nations threatened by rising sea levels.

In Rio de Janeiro in 1992, 35 industrial countries committed to keeping their emissions of greenhouse gases at or below the 1990 level by 2000. Only half of the nations appear to be achieving this goal, the report said, while developing countries' emissions are rapidly rising.

The parties to the convention are meeting in Geneva to set new emissions targets and establish policies to achieve them. The Worldwatch researchers recommended in the report adoption of stronger emissions targets, new policies such as taxes on carbon emissions, a global emissions trading system, tax incentives for energy efficiency, fuel economy standards for automobiles and the transfer of energy-efficient technologies to developing countries.

Ultimately, the report said, stabilizing the climate will require an end to the fossil-fuel economy.

"The time for action is at hand," the report concluded. "Unless the world soon shifts to a new and more sustainable path of energy development, later efforts to stabilize the climate will be far more difficult and expensive -- and too late to prevent some of the most wrenching damage. Industrial countries, which unwittingly created the climate problem in the first place and control the technologies that can ultimately solve it, have a clear responsibility to lead the way forward."

National Catholic Reporter, August 9, 1996