Feeling the Heat

Can the Global Warming Agreement be Saved?

It was a chronicle of a death foretold. The ink was hardly dry on the Kyoto Global Warming Protocols when the Senate voted 95 to 0 to reject any treaty that did not require developing countries to reduce their emissions of global warming gases. Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska) asked, “Why would we put ourselves in a position to restrict our economy, our industry, the dynamic of our society when…other countries have no intention of doing the same?”

So much for U.S. leadership. The deal brokered in Kyoto last December requires the United States to cut its CO2 emissions by seven percent below 1990 levels by no later than 2012, the European Union by eight percent and the rest of the industrialized world somewhere in between. What has likely condemned the Kyoto pact to the fate of the still-unsigned biodiversity treaty was its failure to get developing countries to agree to binding targets. Negotiators also failed to establish rules governing key protocols such as emissions trading, which stands to benefit richer countries who can buy their way out of their Kyoto pledges.

In other words, the U.S. position makes the solution to global warming sound suspiciously like economic colonialism: Other countries cut back on greenhouse gases while the U.S. takes the credit. “The debate needs to occur domestically first,” argues Roger Pielke, Jr., a political scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado.

Scientists agree that the targets established by Kyoto are far below what is necessary to arrest climate change. Still, given the accelerated rate at which countries are producing greenhouse gases, treaty reduction goals are significant—the U.S. alone would end up reducing emissions 35 percent below what would have occurred without
an agreement.

Chain Reaction in the North Pacific

Last summer, more than 10,000 dead seabirds washed ashore on islands throughout the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, victims of starvation. At the same time, Alaskan fisheries were catching warm-water tuna and marlin in their nets, and huge algae blooms were coloring the ocean milky green. Unusually warm ocean temperatures and mild wind catalyzed these events, says University of Alaska oceanographer Tom Weingartner.

In typical years, wind mixes the ocean, bringing nutrients to the surface. But last spring and summer, low wind conditions caused the ocean to settle, resembling a layer cake—nutrient-rich cold water below and the warm, stagnant water above. A major food source for Arctic seabirds—a zooplankton called euphasids—was atypically scarce in the warmer water. A surface water change of “only” three to five degrees was fatal for thousands of birds.

The warming was not caused by El Nino, which hadn’t yet reached the North Pacific. Instead, scientists attribute the warming to atmospheric changes. But it’s more than just the North Pacific that is being affected—the central and eastern equatorial Pacific are also warming, as is the west coast of the U.S.

If the warming trend continues, many wildlife species may not fare well. Whales and seabirds might have to alter their migratory patterns, expending more time and energy to find their planktonic food. A change at any one level in the food web can catalyze an ecological chain reaction, affecting everything from zooplankton to birds to whales.

—Wendee Holtcamp

“The U.S. is increasing emissions at the rate of three percent a year,” says Richard Gammon, a climate ocean scientist at the University of Washington who headed the U.S. global CO2 monitoring network in the early 80s. “So to meet our Kyoto goals requires a net three percent decrease year after year. That’s enormous structural change.”

Therein lies the source of opposition to the Kyoto accord. The Western Fuels Association and Global Climate Coalition, both representing polluters, are underwriting heavily funded campaigns against the pact. “We’re concerned that it’s going to be very difficult to get down to those targets and timetables,” says Bill Edmonds, a policy analyst at PacifiCorp, one of the Northwest’s biggest power companies.

As Friends of the Earth points out, there are now so many loopholes in the treaty that its implementation could easily lead to increases in emissions. For example, one of the protocols would let countries use “sinks”—the creation of storehouses of carbon dioxide, achievable by planting trees—to meet their reduction targets. But not only do sinks fail to address fossil fuel usage, as yet there is no consensus on the best method for measuring their effectiveness. The Union of Concerned Scientists, for one, is insisting that sinks be disallowed until scientists agree on a common methodology to measure their benefits.

Nor are there any limits to carbon trading, which will allow nations to purchase spare emissions, known as “hot air.” The U.S. has already staked a claim to Russian and Ukrainian emissions credits, which the former Soviet Republics “earned” when their economies collapsed. The result? The U.S. would get away with cutting its emissions target by half, but not by actually making any reductions.

“What happened in Kyoto was only the first chapter of the story,” acknowledges Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. The next installment will be written at a UN meeting scheduled to take place in Buenos Aires in November. Bowing to the enormity of the work ahead in getting the treaty ratified, the administration has already postponed its original deadline, which would have delivered it to the Senate by 1999.

Domestically, President Clinton has also proposed a $6 billion package of tax cuts, credits and research grants to reduce greenhouse emissions, but some observers see them as too little, too late. The federal 10 percent tax credit for alternative fuel vehicles (up to $4,000) is a case in point, says Kris Nelson of Alternative Fuels Consulting in Salem, Oregon. He argues that auto companies can’t bring down the cost of alternative fuel vehicles without volume, but won’t be able to achieve volume with high start-up costs. “Most of us in the alternative fuels community were appalled that Clinton did not include any financial incentives,” he says.

As the U.S. continues to drag its feet on both the national and international level, environmentalists can take heart from something that didn’t happen in Kyoto: No one questioned the science, accepting the scientific consensus as presented in the 1995 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”