Evidence of global warming over the past century is “unequivocal,” and the process is largely the result of human activity. If sharp cuts in greenhouse gas emissions aren’t begun within the next decade, the century ahead will see a dramatic rise in violent storms, heat waves, droughts and floods that will kill millions of people and cause the extinction of half or more of the world’s plant and animal species.
So says the fourth report, released this week, of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international committee of scientists that was assembled by the United Nations in 1988 and shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore this fall.
Or, as the daily New Zealand Herald succinctly put it in a front-page headline this past Monday, “Scientists Agree Global Warming Is Killing the World.”
The U.N. global warming panel, 2,000 scientists in 140 countries, has been working methodically over the past 19 years to evaluate and summarize emerging scientific research on climate change. The panel publishes so-called assessment reports every five years, summing up the knowledge accumulated in the years since the last one.
Actually, each report is made up of four separate documents: one on the latest “physical science” findings; one on the likely impact of warming, whether physical, social or economic; one on options for “mitigation,” and a final one, aimed mainly at policymakers, that synthesizes the other three.
The document issued this week is the final section of this year’s assessment, summarizing the three-volume report for the benefit of politicians. The policymakers who make up the intended audience are several thousand government officials — heads of state, energy ministers, scientists, economists and lawyers — who will gather from around the world in December on the Indonesian island of Bali for a weeklong U.N. conference on the environment.
The conference’s declared purpose is to begin drafting a new global treaty to replace the ill-fated Kyoto Protocol, which was signed in 1997 and will expire in 2012. The job of this week’s science document is to drive home to the Bali conferees the enormity of the task before them.
The scientists’ report says that the carbon emissions already in the atmosphere will cause significant warming for years to come, leading to droughts, extinctions and worse, even if further emissions were stopped right now. Unchecked, the report says, continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause rapidly accelerating climate changes, eventually resulting in mass species extinctions, millions of human deaths, especially in the earth’s poorest regions, and the wiping out of whole cities as melting glaciers raise sea levels and inundate the coasts.
The climate panel urges that measures be put in place to freeze carbon emissions at current levels by 2015, and then to start reducing them. By 2050, emissions must be cut 50% to 85% just to keep global warming in the coming century below four degrees and limit sea-level rise to no more than 15 inches.
Those goals, modest as they sound, are actually a tall order. Retooling economies to spit out less carbon will cost hundreds of billions of dollars and force a drop in output in most places. But the U.N. panel estimates that the net cost to each country’s output will be no more than .012% of gross domestic product per year. That’s a small price to pay if the goal is — literally — saving the world.
The last time anything like a global agreement on carbon emissions was attempted was at Kyoto in 1997. A pact was signed, but it ended badly, souring the international climate and seriously setting back the cause. The Kyoto pact was uneven, calling for sharp cuts in emissions by 36 industrialized nations while nothing was required from more than 100 developing nations. Leaders of poor nations claimed they needed unfettered industrialization to lift themselves out of poverty. Europeans and some others agreed. Unfortunately, America did not.
The Clinton administration signed the pact but did not submit it for Senate ratification, arguing that giving a free pass to such giants as China and India was unwise and unfair. Without America and a handful of allies, notably Australia and Kazakhstan, the pact ended up covering the producers of barely 60% of the world’s greenhouse emissions. The seeds of failure were laid.
Then came the Bush administration. Under Bush, America formally withdrew from the Kyoto pact altogether in 2001, saying the science of climate change was unproved. The administration has since accepted scientific reality, and it is sending a team to Bali next month for the next round of talks. It continues, however, to reject the idea of mandatory limits on fuel use by private industries, which are at the heart of nearly every plan to fight climate change.
Quitting Kyoto was the first in what became a series of unilateral steps by the Bush administration, eventually causing massive damage to America’s international reputation. Overseas critics seeking to enumerate American global misbehavior commonly start with Kyoto, which has become an international symbol of American obtuseness.
But change does come. A Senate subcommittee this month approved, with substantial Republican support, a climate bill authored by Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Warner of Virginia, neither one a Democrat. The bill calls for the first time for mandatory emission caps on industry. It’s likely to pass comfortably through the Senate and House in the weeks ahead, after which it will be sent to President Bush for his veto. Then it will go back to Capitol Hill for an attempt at override.
At that point, the fate of the Warner-Lieberman climate bill — and, ultimately, of the Bali negotiations and even the planet itself — will rest in the arms of a handful of wavering Republicans. It’s they, as it turns out, who are the real target audience of this week’s U.N. science report.
They and their corporate sponsors need to absorb the truth that the earth isn’t their plaything. It’s the Lord’s. They ought to know that.