mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Kyoto Can’t Save Us

At the core of the global warming dilemma is a fact neither side of
the debate likes to talk about: It is already too late to prevent
global warming and the climate change it sets off.

Environmentalists won’t say this for fear of sounding alarmist or
defeatist. Politicians won’t say it because then they’d have to do
something about it. The world’s top climate scientists have been
sending this message, however, with increasing urgency for many years.

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Since 1988, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change, comprised of more than 2,000 scientific and technical experts
from around the world, has conducted the most extensive peer-reviewed
scientific inquiry in history.

In its 2001 report, the panel said that human-caused global warming
had already begun, and much sooner than expected. What’s more, the
problem is bound to get worse, perhaps a lot worse, before it gets
better.

Last month, the climate change panel’s chairman, Rajendra Pachauri,
upped the ante. Although Pachauri was installed after the Bush
administration forced out his predecessor, Robert Watson, for pushing
too hard for action, the accumulation of evidence led Pachauri to
embrace apocalyptic language: We are risking the ability of the human
race to survive, he said.

Until now, most public discussion about global warming has focused on
how to prevent it — for example, by implementing the Kyoto Protocol,
which comes into force internationally (but without U.S.
participation) on Wednesday. But prevention is no longer a sufficient
option. No matter how many green cars and solar panels Kyoto
eventually calls into existence, the hard fact is that a certain
amount of global warming is inevitable.

The world community therefore must make a strategic shift. It must
expand its response to global warming to emphasize both long-term and
short-term protection. Rising sea levels and more weather-related
disasters will be a fact of life on this planet for decades to come,
and we have to get ready for them.

Among the steps needed to defend ourselves is quick action to fortify
emergency response capabilities worldwide, to shield or relocate
vulnerable coastal communities and to prepare for increased migration
flows by environmental refugees.

We must also play offense. We must retroactively shrink the amount of
warming facing us by redoubling efforts to remove existing greenhouse
gases from the atmosphere and sequester them where they are no longer
dangerous. One way is to plant trees, which absorb carbon dioxide via
photosynthesis.

Researchers are exploring many other methods as well, some of them
supported by the Bush administration. And Norway is burying carbon
dioxide in abandoned oil wells beneath the North Sea.

The problem with the Kyoto Protocol is not that the 5 percent
greenhouse gas emission reductions it mandates don’t go far enough,
though they don’t. (The climate change panel urges 50 to 70 percent
reductions.)

The problem is that Kyoto governs only future emissions. No matter how
well the protocol works, it will have no effect on past emissions,
which are what have made global warming unavoidable.

Contrary to the impression given by some news reports, global warming
is not like a light switch that can be turned off if we simply stop
burning so much oil, coal and gas.

There is a lag effect of about 50 to 100 years. That’s how long carbon
dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, remains in the atmosphere after
it is emitted from auto tailpipes, home furnaces and industrial
smokestacks.

So even if humanity stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the planet
would continue warming for decades.

So far, the greenhouse gases released during two-plus centuries of
industrialization have increased global temperatures by about 1 degree
Fahrenheit and raised sea levels by 4 to 7 inches.

They have also given rise to the larger phenomenon of climate change.
The climate change panel scientists predict that because of global
warming, the future will bring more and deadlier weather of all kinds
— more hurricanes, tornadoes, downpours, heat waves, droughts and
blizzards — and all that comes in their aftermath: flooding,
landslides, power outages, crop failures, property damage, disease,
hunger, poverty and loss of life.

In California, torrential rains induced a mudslide on Jan. 11 that
killed 10 people, buried children alive and crushed dozens of houses.
In 2003, a record summer heat wave killed 35,000 people, most of them
elderly, in Western Europe. And this is just the beginning.

Scientists are careful to say that no single weather event can be
definitively linked to global warming, but the trend is unmistakable
to the insurance companies that end up paying the bill.

Man-made climate change will bring us increasingly extreme natural
events and, consequently, increasingly large catastrophe losses, an
official of Munich Re, the world’s large reinsurance company, said
recently. Swiss Re expects losses to reach $150 billion a year within
this decade.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair regards climate change as the
single biggest long-term problem of any kind facing his country. His
government’s top scientist, Sir David King, goes further, calling
climate change the biggest danger humanity has faced in 5,000 years
of civilization.

Although the Bush White House continues to downplay the urgency of
global warming, some parts of the Bush administration have recognized
the gravity of the situation. A report released last year by the
Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessments said that by 2020, climate change
could unleash a series of interlocking catastrophes including
mega-droughts, mass starvation and even nuclear war as countries like
China and India battle over river valleys and other sources of scarce
food and water.

All of this underlines the urgency of revising the world’s response to
climate change. To be sure, it remains essential to reduce greenhouse
gas emissions by strengthening the Kyoto Protocol and augmenting it
with other measures. Otherwise, the amount of warming that
civilization eventually will have to endure will prove too great to
survive.

In the meantime, it is imperative to prepare against the climate
change already on its way.

The need for such a two-track strategy of prevention and protection is
gaining acceptance from most of the world’s governments. In Britain,
the Department of the Environment promises to publish its strategy for
adapting to global warming by the end of 2005.

At the most recent international meeting on global warming, held in
Buenos Aires in December, a majority of the delegates supported the
establishment of a fund to aid countries already suffering from the
early effects of global warming.

A leading candidate for such aid is Tuvalu. A Pacific atoll whose
highest point is 12 feet above sea level, Tuvalu was largely submerged
last year by 10- foot seasonal high tides. But the United States
opposed the adaptation assistance, arguing that there is no certainty
what constitutes a dangerous level of warming… .

Preparing to live through the global climate change bearing down on
our civilization will be an enormous undertaking. It will require
immense financial resources, technical expertise and organizational
skill. But perhaps what’s needed most of all, especially in the United
States, is fresh thinking and political leadership — an acceptance
that climate change is inescapable and requires immediate
counter-measures.

The unspeakable death and destruction wrought by the Indian Ocean
tsunami showed what can happen when people are unprepared for
disaster, but there is no reason global warming should take us by
surprise.

Our civilization’s early warning system — the scientists of the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — have been telling us for
years that great danger is approaching. The question is, will we act
quickly and decisively enough to protect ourselves against the coming
storm? Or will we simply stand and face our fate naked, proud and
unafraid?

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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