The Big Spill

Published December 02, 2005, issue of December 02, 2005.
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That massive chemical slick that was spilled into China’s Songhua River on November 13 completed its havoc-strewn journey through Harbin this week, allowing China’s fourth largest city to sound the all-clear and turn its water back on (though the lasting impact on groundwater and soil quality won’t be known for months or longer). Meanwhile, the 50-mile glob of slime is now headed downstream toward the Russian city of Khabarovsk, about a week away. En route, it will pass through Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Republic and its capital, Birobidzhan, still the only jurisdiction in the world where Yiddish is an official language.

Environmental disasters have a curious impact on the modern mind. Some of us are left entirely unhinged by visions of the sky falling and the earth melting down; others go numb and deny the threats right in front of them.

Both of those instincts are on display right now in Montreal, where 8,000 scientists and government officials have gathered for a 10-day United Nations conference on climate change. The conference was planned as a working follow-up to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming, evaluating the treaty’s progress in curbing greenhouse gas emissions and laying plans for the next phase. From initial reports, the working science aspect of the conference is being overshadowed by a chorus of America-bashing.

Not without reason, to be sure. The Bush administration has inflamed opinion around the globe by its refusal to participate in the Kyoto agreement. When it first withdrew from the protocol after taking office in 2001, the White House expressed doubt about the scientific validity of global warming, evoking alarm and derision. Five years and countless studies later, Bush no longer pretends there’s no danger. But he continues to maintain that the Kyoto approach, which imposes binding emission cuts on the main industrial nations, is economically unsound, unfair to the rich nations and too lenient toward polluters in the developing world.

The Kyoto nations are making a show of proceeding without America, but the reality is that nothing will get fixed without cooperation from the world’s biggest industrial economy. That truth is what drives the administration’s opponents to their rhetorical fits of distraction.

The fact is that the administration’s current approach is not entirely implausible. It relies mainly on developing new technologies and jawboning change, which ultimately will prove inadequate to the magnitude of the crisis. But the administration argues that it is allocating billions more to the problem than any other nation. In any case, nobody pretends that even the Kyoto restrictions will be enough to reverse the damage already done. Clearly, there’s a lot of hard thinking to be done on all sides.

As for the administration’s claim that Third World polluters are getting too easy a ride, that claim was looking stronger than ever this week. Just ask the folks in Birobidzhan.

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