Reducing the greenhouse gases that derive from human activities and cause global warming is perhaps the most critical environmental challenge facing the world community.
The task is made even more difficult by the intransigence of the world’s largest economy and its leading oil company. Nevertheless, across the world, from Asia to Europe and even to the United States itself, there are glimmers of hope.
If not budging is a virtue, then U.S. President George W. Bush is a saint. From his first days in office, he and the U.S. Congress have refused to adopt the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty aimed at making very modest cuts in carbon dioxide and other gases emitted from vehicles, electricity power stations and industry in general.
Washington claims that efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that come from burning fossil fuels will, in Bush’s words, “wreck the U.S. economy.” Less myopic nations are finding just the opposite to be true: with improved energy efficiency, subsidized alternative-energy sources and improved mass transportation, they are reducing their emissions and stimulating economic growth. Even some of America’s cities are proving Bush wrong, with Portland, Oregon, having already cut its greenhouse-gas emissions to below 1990 levels (as the Kyoto Protocol requires) while maintaining a vibrant economy.
Of course, reducing emissions creates losers, too. Using less fossil fuel means lower profits for big oil and coal companies that have long been loyal supporters of Bush and similarly minded Congressmen. One of these is ExxonMobil, the world’s most profitable oil company, with a net income last year of $25 billion according to the Wall Street Journal (June 14). Asked about the role that carbon dioxide emissions play in global warming, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, Lee Raymond, told Jeffery Ball of the WSJ, “Our view is it’s yet to be shown how much of this is really related to the activities of man.”
Raymond’s position stands in stark contrast to the worldwide scientific consensus. This is that human emissions of greenhouse gases are substantially affecting the global climate and will increasingly do so, if we do not act. Last week, to protest this profit-at-any-cost policy, a group of nongovernmental organizations in the U.S. launched a nationwide boycott of ExxonMobil’s service stations and products (www.exxposeexxon.com).
Like Bush, ExxonMobil is in the minority. Other multinational oil companies accept the scientific consensus and publicly support the Kyoto Protocol. The WSJ cites BP and the Royal Dutch/Shell group as examples, noting that both are investing in alternatives to fossil fuels.
As disappointing as it is to see billions going into ExxonMobil’s already bulging pockets at the expense of our climate, efforts are under way both locally and regionally to take action against global warming and climate changes.
Last month, 58 parliamentarians from 22 Asia-Pacific nations gathered in Japan for the Asia-Pacific Parliamentary Conference on Renewable Energies (APPCRE). After their discussions, they adopted a declaration titled Renewable Energies: Fostering a Sustainable Asia-Pacific Region. This states that renewable energy sources, such as wind- and solar-power, will promote sustainable development in the region by helping to prevent severe climate change, by ensuring energy security in local areas, and by reducing conflicts over energy supplies. The delegates agreed to pursue ambitious targets for adopting renewable energies in their own nations, and called on the U.S. to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
In Europe, too, politicians are taking action to promote alternative energy sources that can reduce fossil-fuel use.
On July 18, the European Union launched Sustainable Energy Europe 2005-2008 to increase energy efficiency and conservation. The goal is to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020, and to increase the total percentage of energy that comes from renewable sources to 12 percent by 2010.
To achieve these goals, the EU’s plans call for 15,000 megawatts of new wind energy generation; 450 new biomass power plants to produce heat and electricity; a 500-percent increase in bio-ethanol production; and a 300-percent increase in bio-diesel production, according to the Environment News Service (www.ens-newswire.com).
Despite Bush, America is responding, too.
Earlier this month 46 mayors from cities across the country gathered at Robert Redford’s resort in Utah for the Sundance Summit to learn about emissions-trading programs and retrofitting public transport. The challenge for local leaders was summarized by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who said in his opening speech, “Let’s face it, if we wait around for the federal government to act, we aren’t going to see anything happen,” according to Amanda Griscom Little on www.Grist.org. Little also noted that earlier this year more than 170 mayors joined the American New Cities project, pledging to reduce their cities’ greenhouse-gas emissions based on Kyoto targets.
Meanwhile, another particularly encouraging U.S. initiative is being led by the Apollo Alliance (www.apolloalliance.org). With the support of environmental groups, labor unions and civil society groups, Apollo is promoting a 10-point energy and jobs plan. The initiative calls for renewed investment in a modern energy infrastructure, good jobs and energy freedom.
Unfortunately, though, the Kyoto Protocol is just a beginning. Many scientists believe that we will need to cut carbon dioxide emissions by at least 50 percent — far more than the single-digit reductions called for under Kyoto.
But every journey is a series of steps, and the further we travel the better our chances of reducing severe climate disruption. And once the U.S. frees itself from Big Oil lobbyists, we may even see a giant step forward — for humankind and the planet.
A reader recently asked if using the term “climate change” instead of “global warming” is an effort by naysayers to understate the dangers of warming.
According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the planet is likely to warm an additional 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsiusover the next century. Warmer temperatures cause changes in climate, and even very small changes can have a dramatic impact on climate patterns. Global warming may sound more threatening, but the real danger for the planet’s ecosystems is that seemingly small increases in temperature globally will result in large changes in climate that will adversely impact fresh water supplies, agriculture and marine resources, while encouraging the spread of disease.