Hesitance on the Warming Front

AS THE United Nations released the strongest report yet on global warming, a cyclone barreled up the Bay of Bengal. The death toll has already passed 3,000 and is expected to climb to about 10,000. A 4-foot-high storm surge swamped the coast of the sea-level nation. It was a preview for the rise in sea levels in the years ahead.

Predicting that global warming will result in a likely increase in tropical cyclone activity, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said, "Coastal areas, especially in heavy populated megadelta regions in South, East and Southeast Asia will be at greatest risk due to increased flooding from the sea. . . . Endemic morbidity and mortality due to diarrheal disease primarily associated with floods and droughts are expected to rise."

Just before the UN released its report in advance of its global conference next month in Bali, Indonesia, the European Union announced it would impose quotas on carbon dioxide emissions for airlines. "We want a worldwide system as soon as possible," said Peter Liese, a German member of the European Parliament. "There must be an end to the status quo that nothing is done in the aviation sector."

You can easily guess what the Bush administration thought of these developments. It did offer $2.1 million in emergency aid to Bangladesh. But beyond that, the same nation that waged unilateral war on Iraq complained that the European Union's action is unilateral. "This doesn't go along with what the world community agreed to, which is that you should undertake this on the basis of mutual agreement," said Carl Burleson, the Federal Aviation Administration's director of environment and energy.

On the UN report, the United States fought behind the scenes to - pun intended - water it down. This is despite Gernot Klepper of Germany's Kiel Institute for World Economy saying, "The world is already at or above the worst-case scenarios in terms of emissions. In terms of emissions, we are moving past the most pessimistic estimates of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], and by some estimates we are above that red line."

This is despite UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling on the United States and China to take global warming as the "challenge of our age." In his address that accompanied the release of the IPCC report, Ban said, "The world's scientists have spoken, clearly and with one voice. In Bali, I expect the world's policy makers to do the same."

Ban listed several threatened world "treasures," such as melting Antarctic ice and the drying out of the Amazon rainforest into a savanna. He talked of children wearing protective clothing for ultraviolet radiation in Punta Arenas, Chile, under the hole in the ozone layer. "These scenes are as frightening as a science fiction movie," Ban said. "But they are more terrifying because they are real."

Bush officials treat this as fiction. The United States reportedly tried to eliminate a part of the report that detailed possible outcomes of global warming, such as a melting of ice sheets more rapidly than originally thought. The prospect of melting is considered so dire that it "would make it not just difficult, but impossible to adapt successfully" to climate change, Princeton scientist Michael Oppenheimer said in The New York Times.

Yet, when queried as to what level of global warming the White House found acceptable, senior environmental adviser James Connaughton said incredibly, "We don't have a view on that."

Here at home, many governors with a longer view, both Democrat and Republican, are taking matters into their own hands. Coast to coast, governors are making regional pacts on carbon emissions reductions, including a recent nine-state agreement in the Midwest. Republican Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah and Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana are appearing in television ads for Environmental Defense, calling for global warming pollution caps.

Abroad, the Bangladeshes of the world are clamoring louder than ever for action. IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri said "What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future." It would be easy to assume that one of those two or three years will be wasted by Bush. But if Arnold "Hummer" Schwarzenegger can be moved on the environment, perhaps the White House has a tipping point toward sanity. In dire scenarios of climate change, many islands will be swamped. The White House is the last island of ignorance in a fast-rising sea.

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