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Can we save the tiger from Exxon?

An atmosphere of water vapor, carbon dioxide and other gases surrounding the earth creates the conditions for life, which is possible only within a narrow temperature range. Without this protection, the temperature on earth would drop to zero. A small increase in the density of the gases would raise the temperature to life-destroying levels. To end the Ice Age a million years ago took a mere 5 degrees rise to 57 degrees Fahrenheit in average global temperatures. The world’s forests have since then maintained the delicate balance by absorbing the carbon dioxide produced by the processes that maintain life.

Thanks to two factors, increased consumption of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) and over-logging of the world’s forests, that balance is now being threatened. The change over the last two centuries since the start of the Industrial Age is still modest, a little over one degree. But even that is frightening. Polar ice sheets are melting. Disease-carrying mosquitoes are moving north. Violent hurricanes are flooding entire regions. Insurance companies are alarmed by what the head of the Reinsurance Association of America calls “the dramatic increase in insured claims as a result of natural catastrophes.”

The 2,500 scientists from all parts of the world in the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warn that sea levels will rise by up to three feet over the next century, mainly from expansion of sea water as it warms. If the West Antarctic ice sheet melts, as many scientists fear, ocean levels will rise 15 to 20 feet, putting New York City, a third of Florida and a third of the world’s farm land under water. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says that nine of the 10 most dangerous vector-borne diseases (including malaria, dengue fever and yellow fever) are likely to expand. Already last year New York had an alarming attack of West Nile virus. The global food supply is also at risk, with densely populated equatorial regions suffering the highest crop losses.

Futurology is less than an exact science. It is not absolutely certain that events will follow this scenario. But the overwhelming consensus of world scientists as formulated by the climate change panel is that this will be the fate of the world in the near future if we continue to clear-cut the forests and consume ever-greater quantities of fossil fuels. At Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, the United States joined nearly 200 other nations in a treaty agreeing to cut carbon emissions to 7 percent below the 1990 levels by the year 2012.

Ranged against this consensus is the Global Climate Coalition, an association of major corporations, including Exxon, General Motors, Mobil, Texaco, Goodyear and Union Carbide. It spends vast sums of money on public relations and advertising campaigns designed to confuse us about the science of global warming and to persuade the United States and other governments that the economic costs of implementing the Kyoto Accords would impose unacceptable costs on industry. It has been so successful that the United States is doing nothing to meet the modest goals of the Kyoto Accords. By current trends, U.S. carbon emissions may grow 30 percent by the target date.

The good news is that not all major corporations agree with the Global Climate Coalition. In the last two years several major companies, including BP Amoco, Shell and American Electric Power have withdrawn from the coalition and joined the Pew Center on Global Change whose members (including Toyota, Du Pont and Boeing) are committed to lower greenhouse gas emissions and to develop more efficient products. In December of 1999, William J. Ford Jr., chairman of the auto company that bears his name, sent shock waves through the ranks of the polluting companies by announcing that Ford has pulled out of the Global Climate Coalition. Within days, Daimler-Chrysler followed Ford’s lead.

Also last month, a coalition of faith-based groups announced Campaign Exxon. They have targeted Exxon because of its aggressive use of its power to confuse the public about global warming and to block implementation of the Kyoto Accords. The campaign seeks to stimulate awareness of our moral obligation to care for the world and urge believers to adopt habits that will lessen pollution. Its central thrust is to Exxon shareholders, asking them to co-file or vote at Exxon’s annual meeting for the shareholders’ resolution that calls on Exxon to recognize the scientific consensus and commit itself to serious investment in clean, efficient and reliable energy sources. We are steadily approaching the critical mass of awareness that will ensure the action needed to save the planet.

National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2000