December 6, 2004

Groups Meet to Discuss Climate Change

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -- The search for new strategies to confront global warming takes center stage in Buenos Aires on Monday as thousands of environmentalists and government policy-makers gather for an international conference on climate change.

The annual United Nations gathering will be the last conference before the February implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, a landmark agreement requiring 30 of the world's developed nations to reduce "greenhouse gas" emissions by 2012.

Many scientists believe the heat-trapping gases pose a serious threat to life on Earth by causing a gradual rise in the planet's temperature. Global warming has been blamed for prompting more violent storms, raising sea levels and shrinking animal habitats.

Finding ways to persuade the U.S. government to agree to more stringent environmental targets will be a major goal of the Dec. 6-17 conference, delegates said. U.S. President George W. Bush opposes mandatory emissions controls and has refused to support the Kyoto agreement, which enjoys broad support in Europe.

"The best thing for all the international community now would be to discover and design a formula that will bring the U.S. back to the fold," Raul Estrada, Argentina's ambassador for environmental matters, said in an interview. Estrada served as chairman of the 1997 U.N. conference in Kyoto, Japan, where the protocol was negotiated.

Estrada suggested that an agreement on energy efficiency rather than required emissions curbs might be more successful in attracting the United States and Australia, which has also rejected the Kyoto Protocol.

"Everything will be discussed. The imagination is the limit," he said.

The United States produces roughly one quarter of the Earth's total greenhouse gas emissions. The most common is carbon dioxide, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels in automobiles and other engines.

Paula J. Dobriansky, the undersecretary of state heading the U.S. delegation to the conference, said she intends to highlight Bush administration efforts to develop cleaner energy technologies and methods of safely storing carbon dioxide.

The conference comes at a time of growing urgency among many environmental groups alarmed by what they consider mounting evidence of global warming's destructive toll.

U.S. scientists reported last April that global temperatures rose an average of 0.77 degrees Fahrenheit between 1991 and 1998.

The World Wildlife Fund and other environmental groups released a report Monday calling global warming the greatest threat facing the world's coral reefs. Twenty percent of the world's reefs are severely damaged, and another 50 percent are under risk of collapsing due to higher water temperatures and carbon dioxide concentration, among other factors, the report said.

An October report by Greenpeace, Oxfam and other environmental groups said that global warming is at least partially responsible for this year's severe hurricanes in the Caribbean, flooding in Bangladesh and lengthening droughts.

Last month, the intergovernmental Arctic Council announced findings that higher temperatures in the Arctic are melting sea ice, buckling roads and threatening polar bears and other animals.

In Argentina, a 220-foot wall of ice sheared off the giant Perito Moreno glacier last March in a rare spectacle some have attributed to global warming.

However, disagreements abound in the scientific community over global climate change.

John Christy, a climatologist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, says the Earth's temperature has fluctuated considerably over long periods of time.

"The evidence shows that the world is warming, but is not warming at a rate that is catastrophic," Christy said.

Sea levels have been rising for the last 20,000 years, and temperatures in the Arctic have been both lower and higher than they are today, Christy said. Drawing broad conclusions from temperature changes over just a few decades is shortsighted, he added.

Many attending the conference will be eager to enlist greater help from developing nations to fight global warming, according to Elliot Diringer of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

"There will be the gnawing sense that Kyoto is only a start, and we need to work even harder to figure out what can bring the international effort to the next stage," Diringer said.

One widely shared objective is to develop a new agreement requiring cuts in greenhouse gases among larger developing nations such as China and India, where emissions are rising fastest.

However, Margo Thorning, an economist and former U.S. Energy Department official, says requiring reductions from developing nations would be a mistake.

"We can't ask them to cut their emissions, because they need economic growth so desperately to curb their poverty," said Thorning, chief economist at the American Council for Capital Formation in Washington.

The expense of expanding the Kyoto Protocol would divert money from researching cleaner energy sources and finding solutions to other global threats, Thorning said.

"We ought to spend more money on things that people are dying from today, like a lack of sewage (facilities) and a lack of clean water," she said. "I'm not sure global warming is worthy of this much attention."


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