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Tip from pollution lobby: CO2 is good for you

Some industrialists now claim carbon dioxide is good for us.

Certain U.S. corporations, led by the Petroleum Institute, are adopting a position similar to that of the tobacco companies who until recently insisted there was no proof that smoking caused lung cancer. The Petroleum Institute and its friends have developed a plan to spend millions of dollars to persuade the public that the carcinogen-laden air of our smog-bound cities is not the harbinger of catastrophic global warming.

Some companies have even enlisted the aid of what The Wall Street Journal has called “renegade scientists” to argue that more carbon dioxide in the air we breathe will give us a better life.

In 1992, at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, most of the world’s nations were persuaded by the scientific evidence that emissions of greenhouse gases had to be cut drastically. A follow-up treaty signed at Kyoto last December specifies that these emissions must be brought, on average, 5.2 percent below the 1990 levels by 2008-2012.

Actually, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had urged the Kyoto conference to go much farther. This large group of authoritative scientists who are advisers to the United Nations urged that emissions be cut to 60 percent below the 1990 level by 2000. They predict widespread climate disruptions in the next century in the absence of effective action to restore the balance of the earth’s climate and halt global warning.

The United States, which is today the world’s No. 1 greenhouse gas producer, with 22 percent of global emissions, has not only not ratified the Kyoto Treaty. It is encouraging growth of greenhouse gas emissions overseas, especially in China and India, both of whom under present policies are likely to exceed the U.S. level of emissions by 2015.

Fossil fuels -- oil, gas, coal -- are among the most popular investments made by the World Bank, the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation and other international financial institutions. China is the No. 1 recipient of World Bank loans, followed by India; both are heavy users of carbon-rich coal. China’s coal is also rich in sulfur, and the expanding use of coal as China industrializes is already creating acid rain problems for neighboring Japan. With the United States the biggest contributor to the World Bank’s coffers, this means that U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing the polluting, carbon intensive industries of India and China.

Awareness of the threat to the survival of the human race is far greater in Europe than here in the United States, and its impact has produced a welcome rift in the international oil industry. While Exxon and other U.S. oil companies fight the Kyoto agreement, Royal Dutch/Shell, the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, and other European oil interests have withdrawn from the Global Climate Coalition because of “irreconcilable differences” with Exxon and the other U.S. oil companies. The Europeans support the Kyoto treaty and “prudent precautionary measures” against pollution and global warning.

The pollution lobby has powerful supporters in Congress, and this situation is unlikely to change until we have radical controls over corporate funding of political candidates. But there are signs that public opinion is being aroused. Exxon was given a rude shock last month when a shareholder motion bitterly fought by management won 4.6 percent of the votes, with a further 3 percent abstentions. The motion, sponsored by the Interfaith Committee on Corporate Responsibility and several religious orders, called for the creation of a committee of outside directors for an independent review of the impact on climate change of Exxon policies and practices.

Similar motions challenged the policies and practices of General Motors and Ford in recent weeks. And the shareholders will challenge Exxon again next year and every year until it sees what was obvious to the 138 nations who signed the Kyoto treaty last December.

National Catholic Reporter, June 19, 1998