The Kyoto Protocol to reduce global warming went into effect on February 16. Ratified by 141 nations, the treaty aims to limit the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases by 5 to 8 percent in 35 industrialized nations by 2012. The United States, which leads the world by releasing 23 percent of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, is not one of those nations. President Bush started a coalition of the unwilling by withdrawing from the pact two months after taking office.
Few scientists dispute the demonstrable phenomenon of global warming, mankind’s contribution to it or its potentially cataclysmic consequences. In 2001, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported the peer-reviewed findings of 2000 climate experts. They noted that the average global surface temperature had risen by .6 degrees Celsius since 1900, and that much of the increase had occurred during the ’90s. Varying computer models forecast that the average surface temperature would increase between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius in the next century.
Rising temperatures, however, are only part of the problem, a fact underscored by a secret Pentagon report on global warming leaked to the London Observer in February 2004. The report warned that temperature increases could cause a substantial rise in natural disasters such as floods, droughts and famines. These, in turn, could engender riots, massive displacement, and warfare as countries vied for rapidly dwindling food and energy resources. “Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life,” the report concluded. “Once again, warfare would define human life.”
A slew of recent studies lend credence to the Pentagon’s fears. In October, scientists found that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere jumped by more than 2 parts per million for the second year in a row. While the rise certainly could be an anomaly, Charles Keeling, who began such observations in 1958, said, “It is also possible that it is the beginning of a natural process unprecedented in the record.”
In November, 300 scientists published a multiyear study that found the Arctic was warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. It was this study that prompted Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, to tell a conference on January 22: “We are risking the ability of the human race to survive.” Pachauri’s statements were surprising, as the Bush administration had heavily lobbied for him to lead the IPCC. The previous chairman, Robert Watson, chief scientist of the World Bank, had been replaced at the behest of the United States, after Exxon had written the White House a memo in 2001 urging his ouster for being too “aggressive.”
In the current political constellation, however, it is impossible to be too “aggressive” in combating global warming. Even the Kyoto measures — should they actually be met — are incredibly tame, the equivalent of an alcoholic recognizing his problem and promising to limit his daily intake to a six-pack. (No metaphors outside of suicide by keg stand come to mind for Bush’s solution — industry self-regulation.) Kyoto’s proposed reduction in current emissions by 5 to 8 percent is a fraction of the 50 to 70 percent reduction that the IPCC believes will ultimately be necessary to stanch global warming. This unhappy fact is why even proponents of Kyoto, like Eileen Claussen of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, admit that the protocol’s “greatest value is symbolic.”
Because the inherently destructive nature of corporate capitalism is simply not open for discussion in mainstream circles, similar “symbolic” solutions are routinely proposed for real problems. Within this framework, our choices are always, already false. Democrats timidly tell us: “We can make things a little better.” To which Republicans, like Bush, respond, “Oh yeah? Well, we can always make things worse.”