DURING THE last two weeks of November, negotiators from many nations-lobbied heavily by representatives of private environmental groups-labored to craft rules for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, a significant draft treaty intended to counter global warming.
The treaty will require about 40 industrialized countries collectively to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, which trap heat, by 2012 to at least 5 percent below 1990 emissions levels.
Though decision-makers from industrialized and developing countries tried mightily to articulate a plan to meet this goal, the working session ended without agreement. The adage "the devil is in the details" applied here.
The talks in The Hague foundered and sank-an apt metaphor as elevated global temperatures will cause sea levels to rise and swamp once habitable regions of the planet-because of differences over forest credits. The dispute centered on the United States' desire to receive credit toward its reduced emissions goal by promising to protect forests and plant trees at home and abroad.
Regardless of political motivations, the idea that we can stem global warming, at least partially, if we safeguard forests reflects an understanding of the importance of "sinks"-reservoirs-in the carbon cycle and is worth taking seriously. Trees and other plants absorb carbon dioxide. Therefore, as part of the strategy to halt global warming, large countries with substantial forested terrains such as the United States, Canada, Russia and Brazil should get credit for extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as well as for curtailing emissions into it.
Reserved and expanded forests will remove from the atmosphere a primary culprit of global warming and sequester carbon present in the biosphere.
Additionally, positive environmental-side consequences will occur. If designated wisely, protected forests could prevent erosion, enhance water quality, preserve aquatic ecosystems and secure adequate habitat, especially for mammals such as bears and wolves that need large areas.
Of course, the United States does emit more greenhouse gases per capita than any other nation on Earth. For that reason, we owe it to all other living creatures on the planet to cut emissions. We must wean ourselves from technologies that produce greenhouse gases. An appropriate incentive for this is a carbon tax-increased costs of gasoline would encourage each of us to use less fossil fuel.
From relatively minor adjustments in manufacturing and driving smaller cars to substantial changes such as moving closer to work and becoming part of communities that rely on foot and bicycle transport, Americans must change fundamentally the way we live on this planet so that it will remain habitable over the long term.
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Gas bubbles in ice cores show that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations over the last 160,000 years have ranged between 180 and 280 parts per million (ppm) and were approximately constant for the past 10,000 years.
Periods of high atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were periods of higher temperatures. Since about 1860 -when the Industrial Revolutionaccelerated-carbon dioxide concentrations have risen to approximately 350 ppm, a rate unprecedented in recent Earth history.
In fact, the geological record shows us that a natural rate of global warming as the planet emerges from an ice age is approximately 1-degree Centigrade per 1,000 years. Industrialized nations have raised global temperature roughly that same amount in only 100 years. What's more, the year 2000 looks as if it will succeed 1999 and 1998 as the warmest year in recorded history.
We have stark physical evidence of global warming. In March, 2000, an iceberg the size of Connecticut broke off the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica and was set adrift. The consequences of global warming include such melting of ice sheets and glaciers and a consequent rise in sea level that will make uninhabitable island nations and coastal regions close to sea level.
Furthermore, global warming will amplify the hydrologic cycle and thus cause catastrophic flooding in some places and excessive drought in others.
These global changes will affect water availability and quantity, land for living space, agriculture, forestry, power production from damned rivers and storage of toxic materials. We have no time to waste.
We must immediately begin to stop global warming.
When the negotiators meet again in May in Bonn, Germany, they must overcome politics to create informed policy that engages all aspects of the carbon cycle-both emissions and sinks. The Earth system supplies evidence of global warming that should incite them urgently toward this goal.
People who live in the United States-a nation of excessive consumers and waste producers-must reconfigure their lifestyles. People in other countries will emulate the approach and all together enable sustainable existence on this planet. We must take global responsibility for a global phenomenon now.