OF ALL the crimes against the environment that President Bush has committed during his brief tenure, trampling his own promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions may prove to be the most damaging.
Global climate change threatens our economy, national security and the physical landscape itself. By denying the urgency of global warming, President Bush will not make it go away. That is why Bush cannot abandon the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for industrialized nations to take the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The National Academy of Sciences recently revisited the issue of global warming at Bush's request. The report concluded that "greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities . . . Temperatures are, in fact, rising."
The report further stated that "national policy decisions made now and in the longer-term future will influence the extent of any damage suffered by vulnerable human populations and ecosystems later in this century."
As a presidential candidate, George Bush recognized the importance of this issue, promising to require all power plants to meet standards for reducing carbon dioxide "within a reasonable period of time." He proudly announced that "in Texas, we've done better with mandatory reductions, and I believe the nation can do better."
As president, however, Bush now advocates voluntary reductions, and has declared the Kyoto Protocol to be dead on arrival.
Bush has insisted that it would be too expensive for the United States to follow the Kyoto treaty, which would require the nation to reduce its emission levels to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
Yet, the long-range environmental and economic consequences of abandoning the treaty will be far greater than the short-term expenses of adhering to it.
Many members of the business community recognize the stark realities of global warming. In 1998, at the World Economic Forum, the chief executive officers of the world's 1,000 largest corporations, declared that global climate change was the most critical problem facing humanity.
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In addition, recent studies indicate that shifting to more efficient technologies and renewable energy sources will create hundreds of thousands of jobs for Americans, and that the United States' Gross Domestic Product will actually increase.
There is also a role for "sinks," such as forest lands that can sequester or reduce carbon dioxide levels. There is room for all of these approaches in the ongoing Kyoto process because the sequential goals provide such flexibility.
We do not have the luxury of endless time. Nor are voluntary reductions, such as the president has argued, sufficient.
In 1992, the United States signed and ratified a treaty that committed the world's industrialized countries to voluntarily reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to 1990-levels by 2000. It failed. Not one country has lived up to its voluntary commitments, and U.S. emissions continue to rise.
Abandoning Kyoto carries serious geopolitical repercussions as well. Per capita energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are twice as high in the United States as in Europe, and the disparities grow even wider when comparing the United States with developing countries.
British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott recently stated that the United States "cannot pollute the world while free-riding on action by everyone else."
European Commission President Romano Prodi added that "if one wants to be a world leader, one must know how to look after the entire Earth and not only American industry."
Quite simply, global climate change is under way, and it poses real threats to our national and indeed global well-being.
The Kyoto Protocol is the best tool we have to try to avert this potential economic and environmental catastrophe.