December 18, 2005
Temperatures Climb As Warming Talks Stall
NEW YORK -- In the high Arctic, deep in the Atlantic, on Africa's sunbaked plains, climate scientists are seeing change unfold before their eyes. In the global councils of power, however, change in climate policy is coming only slowly.
In Geneva on Thursday, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported that 2005 thus far is the second warmest year on record, extending a trend climatologists attribute at least partly to heat-trapping "greenhouse gases" accumulating in the atmosphere.
In New York, NASA's Goddard Institute projected that 2005 will surpass 1998 to end as the hottest year globally in the 125 years since reliable records have been kept. It said warming has accelerated and is now boosting the mercury every decade by more than 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit.
"The observed rapid warming thus gives urgency to discussions about how to slow greenhouse gas emissions," the NASA researchers said.
Five days earlier in Montreal, however, the annual 189-nation U.N. climate conference ended two weeks of such discussions by failing once again to win U.S. commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions - as almost all other industrialized nations are committed to do by 2012 under the Kyoto Protocol.
The Montreal delegates did adopt technical rules for that 1997 agreement, leading Canadian conference president Stephane Dion to declare, "The Kyoto Protocol has been switched on." And the 157 Kyoto Protocol nations agreed to negotiate further emissions reductions for the post-2012 period.
But Kyoto's first-phase, country-by-country targets are modest and may not all be met; there's no guarantee the second-phase negotiations will produce deeper cuts, and the United States, the biggest greenhouse emitter, remains an outsider.
Carbon dioxide, most important of six greenhouse gases covered by Kyoto, is a byproduct of automobile engines, power plants and other fossil fuel-burning industries.
The atmosphere now holds more than one-third more carbon dioxide than it did before the Industrial Revolution. In fact, European scientists reported last month that analysis of ice cores from Antarctica shows that today's level is 27 percent higher than any previous peak looking back 650,000 years.
A U.N.-organized network of scientists warns of shifting climate zones, ocean levels rising via heat expansion and glacial melting, and more extreme weather events if emissions are not reined in and average temperatures continue to rise.
Among fresh reports of warming's impact:
_The WMO said Thursday that in the Arctic Sea, where average winter temperatures have risen as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit over 50 years, the ice cap this summer was 20 percent smaller than the 1979-2004 average.
_British oceanographers reported this month that Atlantic currents carrying warm water toward northern Europe have slowed. Freshwater from melting northern ice caps and glaciers is believed interfering with saltwater currents. Ultimately such a change could cool the European climate.
_In southern Africa, beset by four years of drought, average temperatures during the 12-month period ending last July were the warmest on record, British scientists said. The mercury stood more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit above a recent 40-year average.
_In Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea in the southwest Pacific, rising seas are forcing hundreds of islanders to abandon vulnerable coastal homes for higher ground, according to U.N. and news reports.
A small, vocal minority of climate skeptics, who long theorized manmade emissions weren't influencing the climate, has grown quieter as evidence of global warming and its effects has mounted.
"In a sense, the burden of proof has shifted from the people who are saying there's a risk, to the skeptics now," Michel Jarraud, WMO secretary-general, said in an interview.
In Montreal, Bush administration envoys, who once cited scientific uncertainty in rejecting the Kyoto pact, focused instead on the argument that emissions controls would damage the U.S. economy.
Largely isolated, the Americans agreed only to joining a nonbinding, exploratory global "dialogue" on future steps to combat warming.
Those who ratified Kyoto, meanwhile, decided a working group should develop proposals for emissions reductions by 35 industrialized nations after the current pact expires in 2012. They didn't agree on a deadline for that work, however, and made little headway on how to draw China, India and other newly industrializing countries into the emissions-control regime.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Associated Press Special Correspondent Charles Hanley has been writing about climate change for a decade. He covered the U.N. climate conference in Montreal last week.