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Since it first commanded world attention in 1997, “haze” — an ugly smog created by fires — has become a regular feature of the Southeast Asian environment. A new United Nations report identifies the grimy acid cocktail as a major health hazard for that region and the world. It is killing millions and changing weather patterns. This is no longer solely Southeast Asia’s problem. Fortunately, it can be stopped. Unfortunately, however, governments have shown little inclination to take action.

According to the study by the United Nations Environment Program, which was prepared for the World Summit on Sustainable Development that will be held later this month in Johannesburg, South Africa, the “Asian brown cloud” is worse than anyone imagined. The report, the work of more than 200 scientists who studied haze from 1995 to 2000, concludes that a 3 km-thick blanket of pollution is changing weather patterns, causing disease and threatening agriculture and economic growth. It is capable of reducing the solar energy that reaches the Earth’s surface, altering the Asian monsoon, reducing harvests and causing respiratory diseases that are killing as many as 1 million people a year. Moreover, explains Dr. Klaus Toepfer, director of the study, this is not just an Asian problem: “A pollution parcel like this can travel half way around the globe in a week.”

The cause of the haze is plain: human activity. In Southeast Asia, the culprits are loggers who set forest fires to clear plantation land. After the first bout in 1997, governments in the region promised to crack down on offenders. Two months ago they signed a pact to give government efforts teeth. It has had little impact: Forest fires are already burning across Borneo, and Southeast Asia is bracing for another smoggy summer.

The scale of the problem is astounding. Researchers estimate that about 1.7 billion tons of carbon were released from Borneo peat bogs during the 1997 fires, an amount equivalent to almost one-third of the global emissions released that year through the burning of fossil fuels. Nor is the Southeast Asian situation unique. The UNEP study concludes that as many as 500,000 premature deaths a year in India are caused by air pollution from stoves and cooking fires. In developing countries, industry, once fingered as a main source of the smog, now appears to be less of a concern than the burning of biomass products such as dung.

The harm does not stop there. The cloud of pollution cuts the amount of sunlight reaching the ground and oceans by 10 to 15 percent, causing land and water temperatures to drop and the atmosphere to grow warmer. As a result, the monsoon rains have been altered: There is more rain and floods in some areas — Bangladesh, Nepal and northeastern India — and less in Pakistan and northwestern India. All of this affects crop yields; one report estimates the haze may be reducing India’s winter rice harvest by 10 percent.

UNEP concedes that there are still many unknowns, but the research provides the basis for important conclusions. First, the problem is much more complex than has been acknowledged. The relationship between human activity and climate change needs to be assessed at a much lower level. Analysis that focuses only on industry will overlook important contributors to this phenomenon. Second, the problem is worldwide, not regional. It was assumed that only greenhouse gases had a global impact. It is now clear that microscopic, suspended particles — known as aerosols — also travel the globe.

Global solutions are in order. The most obvious candidate is the Kyoto Protocol, which is designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Unfortunately, several developed countries, most notably the United States, have refused to endorse the treaty. There needs to be a resumption of diplomatic efforts to ensure compliance.

The UNEP research confirms that developing countries must do their part as well. Developed countries argued during the Kyoto negotiations that developing economies got a free ride in the Kyoto talks; that argument has now been validated. With Asia’s population set to top 5 billion in the next 30 years, concerted efforts to control all greenhouse gas emissions and contributions to the haze problem are needed. That requires cooperation between developed and developing economies to defray the costs of switching to cleaner energy sources. More research is also needed to develop better models of global and regional climate change. But, as the UNEP study makes clear, research must not become a substitute for action. Doubt no longer exists concerning the negative impact human activity is having on the Earth’s climate. The longer we wait, the worse the damage will become.

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