October 15, 2007
‘Climate Year’ Heads for Uncertain End
It's October and global warming campaigner Al Gore has won the Nobel Peace Prize. In November the U.N.'s climate scientists issue a capstone report on where the planet is headed. And in December envoys of almost 200 nations gather in Bali, Indonesia, hoping for action to head off the worst of climate change.
But because of something that happened in September, their chances look slim.This has been the "year of climate," as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientist network that will share the Nobel gold with Gore, produced a series of authoritative reports showing that global warming has arrived. Manmade "greenhouse gases" are almost certainly to blame, the reports say, and a changing climate portends a changing world, because of drought, severe weather, rising seas, dying species and other effects.
Friday's peace prize announcement should have added to the momentum.
"There is still much work to do and no time to waste," Eileen Claussen, of Washington's Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said afterward.
What's needed, say the Europeans, Japanese and most of the rest of the world, is agreement in Bali on fashioning a stronger, broader level of global cooperation to reduce greenhouse gases emitted by power plants, automobiles and other sources.
But prospects for an agreement dimmed in September when the Bush administration, at a 16-nation "major emitters" meeting in Washington, signaled it intends to stick with its opposition to any global treaty mandating reductions in the heat-trapping emissions.
For all this year's buildup, in other words, the real "year of climate" may have to wait for 2009, with a change at the White House.
The climate, meanwhile, won't wait.
In this year's reports, the U.N. panel documented a global average temperature increase of 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit between 1906 and 2005. The seas, swelling from warmth and melted land ice, are rising more than an inch a decade.
Those conclusions were drawn from studies up to 2005. More recent work adds more worrying data.
A five-nation research team reports that global emissions of carbon dioxide, the biggest greenhouse gas, are increasing at a rate three times faster than in the 1990s. U.S. government scientists say this summer's shrinkage of the Arctic ice cap was the greatest on record.
The impact of rising temperatures is seen in countless other ways worldwide, from the devastating northward march of pine beetles into western Canada's forests, to a steady rise in humidity in the air around us - and potentially in human heat stress.
In countless other ways, too, things will grow worse, scientists say. For the first time this summer, for example, European researchers predicted that future hurricanes may strike Mediterranean nations.
As vice president, Gore was in Kyoto, Japan, a decade ago when he and other international negotiators signed a deal by which 38 industrialized nations, by 2012, would reduce their greenhouse emissions by an average 5 percent below 1990 levels.
Almost all are working to meet those targets. But the Clinton White House couldn't win Senate ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. President Bush delivered a final blow when he formally rejected the pact, saying its modest cuts would damage the economy of the United States, historically the biggest emitter, and complaining that quotas should also be imposed on such poor but fast-growing nations as China and India.
Now the world will assemble at the annual U.N. climate conference in Bali, hoping to draw the United States - and in some way China, India and other developing countries - into a new, post-2012 regime of mandatory, deeper emissions reductions. At September's Washington conference, however, U.S. officials made clear they still back only voluntary measures.
Is it too late anyway? Two former Bush administration aides seem to think so.
"Without a technological or economic miracle, it would take a political miracle to reach an international agreement that would mandate the necessary emissions cuts to reverse the momentum behind our evolving global climate system," Paul J. Saunders and Vaughan Turekian wrote in a recent Foreign Policy article titled, "Why Climate Change Can't Be Stopped."
James Hansen doesn't agree. A pioneer in climate research, the NASA scientist in his most recent paper appeals for "insightful leadership" to show the way, and dismisses such "out of our hands" talk.
"Humans are now in control of the carbon cycle and, as a result, in control of climate," he writes.
But for how long? In its citation honoring Gore and the hundreds of researchers whose labors have awakened a planet to its possible fate, the Nobel prize committee warned of a point of no return. "Action is necessary now," it said, "before climate change moves beyond man's control."
Charles J. Hanley has reported on climate change since the Kyoto conference of 1997.