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Global warming summit doomed by hot air, gridlock


The collapse of negotiations at the global warming summit at The Hague (Nov. 14-25) could have enormous repercussions for the 21st century.

The summit brought together more than 1,000 delegates from 182 nations to hammer out rules that would legally mandate a worldwide reduction in "greenhouse" gas emissions that most scientists say are raising global temperatures and putting worldwide climate patterns at risk.

Instead of solving the problem, however, the summit evolved into a no-decision slugout with the United States and the 15 nations of the European Union as the heavyweight main attraction.

With the EU at the fore, a large majority of the 38 most industrialized countries came to the summit intent on forging a treaty that would require hard and fast worldwide pollution cuts.

The Americans, however, came with an intent to oppose adoption of any regulation that would obligate the United States to impose politically unpopular cutbacks in oil consumption or transitions to non-fossil fuel technologies and energy sources.

With neither side budging, the summit collapsed on Sunday with the EU nations accusing the United States of pushing for regulatory loopholes that would allow for "paper" reductions and the United States charging the EU with counterproductive "political purity."

Chief American negotiator Frank Loy blamed the collapse on an EU negotiating position "shaped more by dogmatism than by pragmatism" -- a view shared by Japan, Canada and Australia.

But most of the other nations and a coalition of more than 1,000 environmental groups joined the EU in accusing the United States -- which produces 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gases -- of dodging its global responsibility and catering to domestic corporate interests.

"The Americans," said negotiator Sir Crispin Trickell, a former British ambassador to the United Nations, " are very much the villains of this piece."

His view was seconded by Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope, who charged the United States with "pushing for loopholes that would relieve legal pressures to produce less-polluting cars and cleaner power plants."

Another interested observer at the Hague negotiations was Vanessa Pierce, a 1998 graduate of the International Baccalaureate program at Palmer High, now a junior at Grinnell College.

"The U.S.," she said in a telephone interview on Monday, "was out to derail creation of an effective global warming treaty. They were the single biggest impediment to achieving a reduction in greenhouse emissions."

Global warming: our friend

Those opposed to an international climate treaty, including most of the conservative right faction of American politics, insist that global warming is a myth.

The Heritage Foundation issued a pre-Hague paper ("Squandering the Surplus") arguing that the issue is predicated on "faulty science" and that a climate treaty would sacrifice U.S. sovereignty to "an international version of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency."

A pre-Hague Cato Institute paper ("Hot Air") insists that "a climate change couldn't possibly have a serious long-term impact on the United States" and suggests that global warming would actually be a boon in that it would produce "a longer growing season" and "an expansion of fertile crop and forest land."

According to most scientists, however, the problem is potentially catastrophic.

The Congressional Research Service warned in a 1997 report to Congress that atmospheric carbon dioxide has doubled since the Industrial Revolution, with the majority of that coming in the past 50 years.

If, as projected, levels triple by 2100, there could be a three to eight-degree temperature rise -- an astounding jump, given that "the world has warmed [only] nine degrees in the 18,000 to 22,000 years since the last ice age."

Records indicate, meanwhile, that the 20th century was the warmest since reliable records began in 1400, that the 1990s was the warmest decade of the 20th century, and that 1998 was the warmest year of the century.

Unless this trend is checked, scientists warn, the coming decades could bring the extinction of ecosystems, rising sea levels, spreading of tropical disease, the dramatic increase in the frequency and severity of storms, and disruptions of rain patterns, agricultural zones and food supplies.

The political climate

The Hague deadlock illustrates the extent to which the global warming debate is increasingly a political debate shaped by a competing network of corporate, legal and economic constituencies.

The summit swarmed with corporate and environmental lobbyists alike, the former arguing from a business standpoint that the emission-reduction targets pushed by the EU were unrealistically high, the latter arguing from an environmental standpoint that those targets are unrealistically low.

But the U.S. delegation was on a collision course with the EU well before the Hague summit. The U.S. Senate issued a resolution, passed 95-0, that no ratification would be made of a climate treaty detrimental to U.S. economic interests -- a treaty, in other words, that might cause oil prices to rise, require significant cutbacks in oil consumption or necessitate transition to non-carbon energy sources.

Presidential candidate George W. Bush was openly critical of the Hague summit in the weeks preceding it, and Senate majority leader Trent Lott sent ultra-conservative Senators Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska) to monitor the negotiations and make sure the American team didn't "cave in" to EU demands for deep emission cuts.

But the sentiments of those leaders do not necessarily reflect the will of the American people.

In a Nov. 17 press conference at the Hague summit, David Gardiner, executive director of the White House Climate Change Task Force, acknowledged that "overwhelming majorities of the American public are concerned about climate change and believe that action is warranted."

He also conceded "a sharp decline in organizations and businesses who are opposed to action on climate change."

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