Monday, February 14, 2005

Head for the High Ground 

The Kyoto protocol goes into effect this Wednesday (without the participation of the U.S., naturally). Most discussions of global warming focus on how to prevent it -- but prevention, according to Mark Hertsgaard, is no longer a sufficient option. "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," but the warming process is already underway, and if we hope to avoid a climatic apocalypse we had better start dealing with the 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 . . . .

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 . . . .

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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