Global Warning

By Mark Hertsgaard

As seen on the
New York Times' OP-ED page,
Saturday, April 8, 1995

San Francisco
Invisibly small, the flecks of volcanic dust have been wafting through our atmosphere for nearly four years now. Ejected by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in June 1991, the ash dispersed around the planet like a fine mist, shielding the earth's surface from the full force of the sun. Thus it has made the planet feel slightly cooler, even as nations continue to pump into the sky ever greater quantities of carbon dioxide and other gases that cause global warming.

Nearly all the ash from Mount Pinatubo has now fallen back to earth, settling on our soil, water and forests, but also, it seems, clouding our minds. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz lying down to sleep amid a snowstorm of white poppies, we have been lulled into complacency at the moment we can least afford it, when global environmental trends are still moving rapidly in the wrong direction.

Twenty-five years after the first Earth Day, the idea of saving the planet has dropped off the American radar screen. Indifference is especially common among those who should know better: our leaders in Government, business and the news media. The global warming conference that ended yesterday in Berlin without endorsing binding timetables for reductions in greenhouse gases is but the most recent example of the inadequacy of our response to environmental peril.

To read Vice President Al Gore's 1992 book Earth in the Balance, one would think that from the moment he took the oath of office he would have focused on nothing but the grave threats of global warming, overpopulation and runaway consumption. Instead, the Clinton Administration has compiled an environmental record of retreats, defeats and half measures.

The tone was set in the summer of 1993, when the White House sought to increase taxes on the fossil fuels that cause global warming, hopping to discourage their use. But when senators from western oil states threatened to retaliate by voting against President Clinton's economic package, the White House backed down.

It is too late to prevent global warming, according to Sir John Houghton, co-chairman of a United Nations panel of more than 2,000 scientists and experts commissioned to over the coming decades, returning them to 1950's levels. That is a daunting challenge. As Angela Merkel, the German Environment Minister and chairman of the Berlin conference, said last week, it would require a fundamental shift in our patterns of production and consumption. Fossil fuels might have to be eventually phased out in favor of new energy sources that don't emit carbon dioxide.

Energy industry spokesmen, scoffing, say such radical changes are impossible, despite numerous studies detailing the economic benefits of switching to renewable energy sources. But at the conference the naysayers faced opposition from an unlikely source. The insurance industry, smarting from multibillion dollar losses after several years of unusually severe hurricanes and floods, seconded calls from an alliance of small island nations for stronger measures to prevent climate change. As an underwriter from Lloyd's of London said in a press briefing, quoting climate experts hired by the company: "'We can't prove there is global warming. But by the time we can, you chaps will be in real trouble.'"

Unfortunately, world leaders continue to steer an opposite course. The treaty signed at the 1992 Earth Summit did not even mention reductions; it merely committed nations to trying to stabilize emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. Yet almost none of the industrialized nations that signed the final agreement in Berlin will meet even this insufficient target, and only Germany projects a 10 to 20 percent reduction of carbon dioxide by 2005.

"Even after highly publicized warnings from virtually the entire scientific community ... we are doing virtually nothing to address the principal causes of this catastrophe in the making." Those words were written by Senator Al Gore in 1991, when George Bush was in the White House. But they are no less true today. The Clinton Administration's plan against global warming relies mainly on voluntary measures that Mr. Gore himself concedes fall short of what is needed.

Indeed, the Administration has failed across the board to live up to the grand vision outlined in "Earth in the Balance" of making "the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization." True, some worthwhile initiatives, such as renewing the Clean Water Act and charging corporations fair market prices for minerals mined on public lands have been stymied by big business opposition in Congress. But neither has the White House put up much of a fight, and Mr. Gore has been kept busy putting out political fires and cheerleading for the Information Superhighway. IT's hard to be a planetary Superman in only two hours a week, no matter how much you look like Clark Kent.

Nor is the press, with its habit of reflecting the thinking of official Washington, likely to rise to the challenge. With the Republican Congress on the brink of rolling back 25 years of environmental measures, how likely are national editors to assign stories on the failure of the Administration to accomplish more?

After Berlin, it is tempting to console ourselves that there will be other, more successful conferences in the future. But the enormous lag time between addressing problems like global warming and population growth and solving them in fact leaves no time to delay.

Take the deteriorating ozone layer. The global response has been hailed as a success story, because industrial nations have agreed to halt production of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons by the end of this year. But because CFC's remain in the atmosphere for decades, the ozone layer will continue to break down for years to come. Not until 2066 are atmospheric concentrations of CFC's expected to return to the levels of the late 1970's, when the hole over the Antarctic first appeared. Meanwhile, a team of researchers announced this week that the ozone layer over the Arctic shrank this year by a record amount.

The possibility that, like Sampson, we are pulling the planetary temple down on ourselves is too terrible a thought for most of us to absorb. It's much easier to turn off our minds and pretend it isn't happening. Easier, but foolish.

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