WASHINGTON - Dubbing the battle against climate change a moral test for the United States, global anti-poverty and religious leaders called on U.S. politicians Monday to take drastic and immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to minimize the country's contributions to global warming.The activists, academics, and international charities echoed the charges leveled in a recent major scientific report that the hazardous consequences of a changing global climate will take a particularly powerful toll on people living in the world's poorest countries.
"Africa accounts for just 3 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, but drought and disruptions of water access could put 840 million people at risk," said former White House chief of staff John Podesta, who is now director of the Washington, DC-based independent think tank Center for American Progress, one of the sponsors of Monday's event in the nation's capital.
Organizers, who represented a wide range of interests and included non-profit organizations including ActionAid, Friends of the Earth, Jubilee USA, and Oxfam America, said more than 300 climate activists and concerned individuals attended the meeting, and scores more participated through a live Web simulcast.
They heard speaker after speaker demand that officials in the United States join their colleagues from Europe, Asia, and other regions in encouraging citizens and requiring corporations to change their climate changing ways.
With only 5 percent of the global population, the United States is responsible for over 25 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change, said Archbishop Desmond Tutu, addressing the conference by video from South Africa.
Speaking during the opening session, Tutu stressed that climate changes are impeding anti-poverty efforts worldwide.
Noting the droughts, famines, and floods that have caused millions of deaths across his continent and others in recent decades, the Nobel Peace Prize winner warned that climate change is already causing increases in the severity of these events as well as increases in human health problems and decreases in farmland and other requirements for economic progress.
"The climate crisis stalls our collective efforts to produce a sustainable and just future," Tutu said, adding that, while many African countries are already taking action to adapt to climate change and mitigate their own impacts on the problem, the United States and other wealthier nations must do more too.
The United States gives more money to international aid efforts than any other nation, noted former UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery Eric Schwartz, but, he added, it is also exacerbating poverty by contributing more to climate change than any other country.
Schwartz, who currently heads the Washington, DC-based group Connect US, a network of organizations that promote what they call "responsible" U.S. global engagement, joined in the call for a change in U.S. policies to help the country take the moral and political -- not just technological -- lead in addressing the issue worldwide.
Though Archbishop Tutu did not address the United States by name, the Bush administration was clearly the target of his message that affluent nations must stop providing economic incentives to companies that produce and consume oil and other fossil fuels, which are a leading contributor of greenhouse gases. He also called for the use of alternatives to oil, singling out wind and solar energy technologies for their capability to bring energy to both rich and poor people around the world without contributing to global climate change and its damaging consequences.
Meena Raman, a Malaysian activist and chairperson of the global environmental coalition Friends of the Earth, stressed the impact climate change is already having on her country and others working feverishly to grow their economies while coping with increasing health risks like malaria, malnutrition, and extreme weather events.
Raman implored U.S. officials to promote technologies that could supply U.S. energy needs in a more energy-efficient and climate-friendly way. She also called for a "drastic reduction of per capita emissions" in the world's wealthier nations and "fundamental changes in the way we produce and consume -- among the rich of the North and the South."
The message was not lost on one key U.S. lawmaker.
Representative Ed Markey (D-MA), who chairs a Congressional committee on global warming, pledged to help promote those changes at the highest political levels in the United States. Markey called for the U.S. Congress to send legislation to President Bush that would cap the greenhouse gas emissions of U.S. corporations, adding that companies would have the option to buy additional allowances from others that manage to reduce emissions below their allotted limit.
In environmental circles, that approach is called "cap and trade."
Passing a cap-and-trade bill would force the U.S. president to approve the plan, which is opposed by many industry representatives, or face an angry electorate in 2008, said Markey. It is a political corner Markey said he hoped the president would be backed in to -- for the sake of the planet.
The legislator also called for an increase in fuel-economy standards of U.S. vehicles by 10 miles per gallon within 10 years, and said electronic appliances from lightbulbs to flat-screen televisions sold in the United States should be required to be more energy efficient. The technology exists, Markey said, but it's up to government officials to help promote their use.
Markey also drew on his faith, saying that his own Catholic religion, like Jewish scripture and almost all other religious traditions, calls for a stewardship of the Earth and all its people.
Joel Hunter, an evangelical Christian leader in the United States, agreed.
"I see this as a pro-life issue," said Hunter, who is a pastor in Longwood, Florida and serves on the board of directors of both the National Association of Evangelicals and the World Evangelical Alliance.
"The whole life of our founder was concerned with poor people, was concerned with the vulnerable," said Hunter, referring to Jesus Christ.
Asked why many Christians -- and particularly evangelicals -- are split on how the United States government should react to the issue of climate change, Hunter said "the biggest challenge is to recognize that we don't know about the rest of the world, because we haven't identified with them as people.
"These aren't 'the poor' -- they are people," he added tearfully. "They love the same way we do, they grieve the same way we do. These are people."
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