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Global Warming - Beyond Point Of No Return?

By Robin McKie - Daily Mail And Guardian

1st Mar 2000

JOHANNESBURG - In Mozambique, 300,000 people are left homeless and hundreds have been killed in devastating floods. In France, storms cause 90 fatalities, destroy 270 million trees and trigger R750-billion worth of damage. In Austria, a series of avalanches sweeps 11 people to their deaths. And in the Arctic, scientists discover that over the past two decades the polar ice cap has thinned from a modest 3m thickness to a flimsy 2m. And that is just a brief selection of the environmental horrors that have beset the planet over the past few weeks, although it is enough to confirm meteorologists' worst fears. With wearied resignation, they are now admitting what was long suspected - that global warming must be accepted unambiguously as the trigger for increasingly unstable weather fronts, storms, melting glaciers and rising seas. The world is slowly sliding into climatic uncertainty - yet there is little sign that we are capable of taking action that can halt this descent into elemental catastrophe. "We can no longer say we are still unsure whether extreme weather events are caused by global warming," says Dr Mike Hulme, of the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University. "When we look at the Mozambique floods, at the storms that hit France, at the absence of winter in Britain this year, at the avalanches in the Alps, we are witnessing events that are now clearly tainted by human actions." Yet, as Hulme points out, even if mankind stopped pumping carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere tomorrow, we would have to wait a very long time to reap the benefits. It would take several hundred years to stop the world's oceans from rising, for example. "Even if we closed every factory in the world at midnight tonight, there would be enough carbon in the atmosphere to keep it warm for generations, and enough heat permeating through the oceans to keep sea levels rising for hundreds of years," Hulme says. That is bad enough. But now, three years after the Kyoto environmental summit at which the leaders of the industrial nations hammered out meagre proposals for reducing industrial gas emissions by 5,2% of 1990 levels by the year 2010 - the chance of mankind's willingness to reduce output by even a modest amount looks remote and unlikely. Some nations responded fairly well, of course - including relatively bad polluters like Britain, which was obliged to agree to a 12,5% reduction. In fact, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has decided to go further, and has pledged the country to a 20% cut. Other European nations have been equally enthusiastic. The world could be slightly encouraged - were it not for one major blot on the political landscape. Although President Clinton signed the Kyoto Treaty, committing the United States - by far the biggest carbon dioxide polluter in the world - to reduce emissions by 7%, Congress has simply refused to ratify the agreement or cut US carbon dioxide output by a single ton. This failure can be traced to US experts who claimed that signing the Kyoto treaty would cost every American $2 000 a year in higher fuel bills, a line that was promoted with particular vigour by the Global Climate Coalition, an alliance of car manufacturers and oil companies, including Peabody Coal, the powerful Western Fuels Association and Exxon. The coalition's aim - as revealed in internal documents - has been to turn global warming from a "fact" into a "theory" in the minds of the American public. The origins of this extremely powerful, well-funded lobbying group predate Kyoto and can be traced to the days when George Bush Snr was President, a man who promised to "counter the greenhouse effect with the White House effect" and then spurned the 1992 environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro. The election of Bill Clinton in November 1992 subsequently gave hope to reformers. "This was the moment for the US to take the lead," says author Mark Hertsgaard in his book Earth Odyssey, which he spent six years researching. "We led the global economy, there was an economic boom, and we had a vice-president who had just written that global warming was the greatest emergency facing the planet." Unfortunately, the reformers, and the world, have been undone by a combination of factors: the election of a right-wing Republican Senate opposed to any attempt to curb Americans' right to have lives as wasteful and profligate as they like, the entrenchment of the global climate coalition, and - as Hertsgaard puts it - "the long-time and deeply ingrained relationship between the Gore family and one of the industry's giants - Occidental Petroleum". In this latter case, it was discovered that Vice-President Al Gore's father had invested in Occidental Petroleum, to the tune of $500 000 in stock. When Gore came to supervise the "Reinventing Government" plan of 1995, he handed over a vast US Navy oil reserve at Elk Hills, California, to Occidental. The sale order was signed in 1997. "It was a windfall for Occidental," says Hertsgaard, "and it was sure a windfall for the stockholders. Anyone with stock in Occidental amassed a fortune." The current impasse over Kyoto can be attributed to a number of factors, including "the political influence of the fossil fuel industry and its friends in Congress, coupled with the inability of the Clinton Administration and its own personal entwinement in the corporations themselves", as Hertsgaard put it. The world's bid to reduce its headlong flight towards climate disruption, rising seas and drowned coastlines has been thwarted primarily by this depressing combination of effects. Just as it has done with moves to curb gun use, the US has stubbornly refused to accept what the rest of the world, and its own liberal politicians, have been saying: that it has to change its ways - drastically. However, this deeply depressing situation has been lightened by recent encouraging signs. The global climate coalition, the nemesis of environment campaigners, is beginning to show signs of instability. General Motors, Ford, Shell, Amoco and BP have recently quit the organisation, although others, such as Exxon and Mobil, remain. "These companies have watched the tide of public opinion change and moved far away from their entrenched position," said Hulme. "The future of car engine technology lies in the development of ways to reduce carbon and other emissions, and more and more of these companies are now accepting that this is inevitable." Many experts predict that the family of someone killed in a storm or avalanche may soon follow the example of litigants against cigarette companies - and sue oil companies for pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Intriguingly, Britain is currently on course to reach its Kyoto targets by 2010 but has had to do very little to achieve this goal. By switching from coal to gas burning, and by improving energy efficiency, it has cut emissions by several percent, a trend further boosted by the fact it is now enjoying warmer and warmer winters - which, of course, are linked to carbon dioxide output. This irony is not lost on scientists. However, to achieve its goal of a 20% emissions cut Britain will soon have to take more direct action, and next year is expected to introduce a climate change levy on companies. Employers will be taxed according to the amount of energy they consume. How this cash is then distributed by the treasury is still uncertain, however. One thought is to use the cash to offset National Insurance contributions, making it cheaper to employ people, but dearer to use electricity and gas. Alternatively, the money could fund research into solar, wind and wave energy devices that would then replace the gas, oil and coal plants which generate most of Britain's electricity. In other words, global warming, already an influence on British society, is going to touch its people's lives increasingly. "We can take action to mitigate its effects, but we must also try to anticipate what is inevitably going to happen to our country," said Dr Geoff Jenkins, of the Meteorology Office's Hadley Centre. Bridge builders, architects, health services, lawyers, civil servants, biologists, doctors and many others will have to prepare for a future in which the climatic certainties of the past can no longer be taken for granted. This point is summed up by geographer Professor Nigel Arnell of Southampton University. "We know the climate is going to change but we don't know specifically how or where," he says. "For the first time, the immediate past is not going to be a good guide to the immediate future, and we don't know what that future will be like." However, no organisation or unit as yet exists to provide guidance. It is for this reason the British government is preparing to establish a climate change research centre at which engineers, social scientists, meteorologists and other scientists will attempt to identify the unavoidable changes that will soon sweep the country and devise ways to mitigate their effects. "We need to pool our resources and deploy them now as best we can," said Hulme. "We cannot stop global warming, but we can arm ourselves against it if we act promptly."

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