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There are words that wake us up — like “free” or “prize” or “espresso” — and then there are words that put us to sleep. Unfortunately, the latter group includes most of the working vocabulary of some very well-meaning people: “environment,” “global warming,” “greenhouse gases,” all the way up to the incomparably sedative “joint emissions targets.” “Flexibility mechanisms” and “sink enhancement” have probably done more to cure insomnia than to avert climatic doom. For all their armory of statistics, acronyms, technical jargon and cliches, the scientists and bureaucrats who are working so hard to “save the planet” have a terrible record when it comes to capturing public attention.

They captured it last week, however, with a headline calculated to jolt the sleepiest polluter awake: “Beaches may be gone by 2080s,” as this newspaper summarized the local aspects of a report released Tuesday by the World Wide Fund for Nature. “Beach,” with its pleasant aura of sun and surf, is in the gold-medal league of attention-getting words, so most readers probably paused long enough to learn that, if global warming continues unchecked, the sea could swallow all the beaches in Japan by the end of the next century. This is a worst-case scenario, but even the most optimistic computer simulation sees half the country’s beaches under water by the 2080s.

Cynics might interject here that a) they didn’t know Japan had any beaches, in the classic sense of “a stretch of sand unencumbered by ugly cement structures,” and b) nobody would care anyway, since they already visit beach-enhanced theme parks all year round. But these are frivolous responses to a potentially calamitous situation that the WWF and other environmental groups are only just learning how best to publicize.

They are also getting better at timing. This report (preceded by an equally dramatic one in August on the likely effects of climate change on world tourism) came just days before the opening tomorrow in Bonn of the Fifth Session of the Conference of the Parties, or COP 5, of the United Nations Framework Convention Climate Change, or UNFCCC.

All those capital letters induce the usual somnolence, but in truth this is an important conference to which the world should pay attention. It is of course a followup to the famous COP 3, held in Kyoto two years ago, which produced the highly regarded, but broadly disregarded Kyoto Protocol. This plan binds developed countries to “emissions targets” for the period 2008-2012 (meaning emissions of ozone-destroying greenhouse gases, the collective culprit of global warming) that would be 5 percent lower than their emissions in 1990. Or, at least, it would be binding if the aforesaid developed countries would get around to ratifying the protocol. Nearly two years after agreeing to it, not one has done so. Although they obviously produce most of the world’s greenhouse gases, they remain paralyzed by concerns about the plan’s economic implications and how, or even whether, it can be implemented fairly. Consequently, their emissions are on track to be 18 percent higher than 1990 levels by 2010.

Yes (yawn), we’ve heard those numbers before. But here is what it could mean a century from now, in terms a child could understand. For Japan, not only will beaches vanish, but coastal cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya will be increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic flooding. Worldwide, summers will be hotter — in popular tourist destinations like the Mediterranean, unbearably so. Coral reefs will die. Arable lands will turn to desert. Many wildlife species will disappear because of climatic changes affecting habitats. Drought will increase the incidence of forest fires, particularly in rain-forest regions like the Amazon. Wetlands will dry up. The Earth, in short, will have a different face at the end of the 21st century, no matter what restrictions are implemented now. Our imaginary child might think this would have economic consequences too, but he would also understand the answer: That’s a problem for tomorrow’s accountants.

The Bonn conference’s job is to hammer out ways of implementing the Kyoto Protocol so that the rich nations’ objections are met — a process to be concluded at next year’s conference in The Hague. It will have to include defining the rules by which developed countries can reduce the costs of meeting their targets (hence the “flexibility mechanisms”), establishing consequences for failure to comply and, most important, getting developing countries more involved. It is crucial, but not at all certain, that COP 5 will succeed.

If human nature holds true and COP 5 fails, there will still be one ray of light for Japan: The ocean will solve its thorny Northern Territories problem once and for all.

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