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Ignoring evidence of global warming a risky gamble

We hear and read a lot of conflicting reports about global warming. There are clear signs of the effects of higher temperatures in all parts of the world. Spring is coming earlier. In the fall, the migratory habits of butterflies and some birds are being disrupted. Glaciers are melting. Oceans may be rising.

Is all this the result of human intervention or simply a cycle that has occurred more than once in the past?

Since the start of the Industrial Era in the mid-19th century the quantity of carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere has increased exponentially. By absorbing the heat of the sun from the earth’s surface and retaining it in the lower atmosphere, carbon dioxide raises the global temperature. When we clear-cut forests, as has occurred at a catastrophic rate in the Amazon and other areas of the world, the trees are not available to absorb excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it to biomass.

These are unquestioned facts and they have convinced the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that the current global warming has resulted from human intervention. The panel believes that, as a minimum, the average temperature will rise three times more in the next 20 years than it did in the past 140 years.

In the panel’s worst scenario, the seas would rise 55 inches -- almost five feet -- by 2020, submerging whole islands as well as vast areas of low-lying land. Mosquito-borne diseases would proliferate. Seawater would seep into aquifers near coastlines, further diminishing the world’s already inadequate supplies of fresh water. To the many millions of political and economic refugees who today roam the world in search of living space would be added a new category -- climate refugees from the tropics.

Forty industrialized nations are taking these warnings seriously. At a meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, last November, they agreed to specific targets to implement the Kyoto Convention that came into force in 1994 and has been ratified by 186 members of the United Nations. While the United States signed the Kyoto Convention, the Senate has never ratified the treaty.

Countries that have ratified the convention are committed to cutting greenhouse emissions to an average of 5.2 percent below their 1990 levels by the year 2012, with demonstrable progress by the year 2005. Already industrialized nations are given “pollution credits” for investing in emissions-cutting projects in developing countries.

While the United States participated in the deliberations at the United Nations that resulted in the Kyoto Convention, it did not take part in the Marrakech meeting. The Bush administration had announced that it was not going to honor the commitments made by the Clinton administration.

Snubbing the treaty runs contrary to some of the most prestigious scientific authorities in the United States, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, the National Resources Defense Council and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. All agree on the urgent need for action against a clear and present danger. The Union of Concerned Scientists, voicing the conclusions of two thousand scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other institutes of learning, has formulated a concrete program for immediate action. It calls for “meaningful domestic policies to attack the global warming threat, including higher fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks, binding caps on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and requirements that a steadily increasing share of our electricity come from renewable energy sources such as wind, biomass and solar energy.”

The technology is available today to cut energy use by 20 percent. We have cars that can get 60-70 miles per gallon of gas. We have light bulbs that last 10 times longer and use 75 percent less electricity than conventional bulbs. Mass produced, the price for both high mileage cars and more productive light bulbs would be competitive.

These simple changes, however, face one enormous hurdle that has nothing to do with science -- the U.S. political system, where both Democrat and Republican administrations overwhelmingly subsidize fossil fuels and nuclear power, the sources of our pollution. It has been amply documented that the votes of politicians at all levels are bought off in scandalous campaign funding schemes by interest groups, in this case those involved in fossil fuels and nuclear power.

We politely avoid the term bribe, which best applies, and keep wringing our hands through unsuccessful attempts to reform the system. Meanwhile, serious matters like global warming remain sidelined.

If it were just money and political influence involved, it would hardly be worth the grousing. But the stakes -- the life of the planet and humans’ relationship to it -- go well beyond normal political brokering. Shutting out debate and the development of cautionary steps on such a significant matter is a gamble far too risky to be settled by lobbyists’ money.

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2002