Ironically, at exactly the same time that Hurricane Mitch was dominating the headlines, national leaders were meeting at a global climate summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. One year ago at the Kyoto summit, participants drafted an agreement for industrialized nations to cut back on their greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% below current levels by the year 2012. Most environmental groups and scientists agree that the Kyoto agreement won’t be enough to slow the drastic climate changes that are already underway. This year in Argentina, the current summit is proving that even that weak treaty is unlikely to be implemented.
The U.S., which is the world’s biggest polluter in terms of greenhouse gases, didn’t even sign the treaty until the day before the summit ended this month, when it was obvious that the U.S. government wouldn’t have any credibility at the negotiations without doing at least that much. As it was, we were the last industrialized nation to sign it. The Clinton Administration blamed the delay on the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, which must ratify the treaty to make it law (Senate Republicans have already announced that they will reject it). But few Democrats will support anything that limits the ability of U.S. business to continue expanding forever (until we all fry to death).
The U.S. government is not alone; of those governments that have signed the Kyoto protocols, only one so far has ratified the treaty: the tiny island nation of Fiji (which is concerned that it will disappear completely if ocean levels rise much further).
But even if a miracle were to occur and all the signers were to ratify the treaty, there are still two enormous loopholes. The first is that participation by underdeveloped nations is entirely voluntary. While they have few emissions now and are not responsible for the current sorry state of the ozone layer and global warming, highly populated nations like India and China are on a fast-track to becoming major polluters just like us. Global oil, gas, coal, and automobile companies are already peddling their products and services in those countries–selling SUVs to a growing class of Chinese urban professionals, for example. And the World Bank continues to lend money for coal-burning plants, mining projects, oil extraction, and deforestation projects in these countries–all in the name of “development.”
The second problem is an emissions trading clause that would allow underdeveloped countries that voluntarily sign on to the agreement to sell or trade their unused “quota” of emissions to industrialized nations, thereby defeating the whole purpose of cutbacks for the largest polluters. Honduras, for example, could trade its emissions quota to the U.S. in exchange for food, medicine, or money to rebuild its infrastructure–at least until the next Mitch-sized hurricane blows through.
And that’s becoming more likely with each passing year. At the climate summit in Buenos Aires, a British group, the Hadley Center for Climate Change, presented the findings of a study showing that the greenhouse effect is much worse than anyone realized. After making billions of calculations on the world’s largest supercomputer at the Hadley Center in Berkshire, they found that 1998 is already the hottest year on record (the records began 140 years ago). Some of their other findings include:
The number of people subject to flooding will increase from 5 million now to 100 million by the year 2050, and 200 million by 2080.
Severe droughts in Africa and severe weather changes in the midwestern U.S. will cause widespread famine in 50 years, threatening 30 million more people with starvation. Most of central and southern Africa will be unable to grow staple food crops.
An additional 170 million people will live in areas with extreme water shortages.
Malaria, which has already spread to southern Italy, will take hold in Europe and reach the Baltic by 2050.
By 2050, a runaway greenhouse effect will occur. Previously, it was thought that re-planting trees and other vegetation could slow or mitigate global warming. But if we continue producing greenhouse gases and cutting down forests at the current rates, by the year 2050 no amount of re-planting will slow or stop the greenhouse effect. This is because we will have lost the main regions that produce cooling rainfall for the planet–particularly the Brazilian Amazon, which will largely be a desert by then. Other areas that are threatened with desertification include large parts of southern Europe and the eastern U.S.
And this is only a conservative calculation of what will happen. While severe droughts, storms, record floods, and “natural disasters” are happening at an escalating pace, governments are continuing to react only to the interests of global corporations. Which means: deny, deny, deny.