When will the world wake up to the threat of global warming?

December 04, 1997|By Gwynne Dyer

THE UNITED Nations' climate summit that opened this week in Kyoto, Japan, will probably not end in a flaming row. Countries must not lose face, and so they are more likely to cobble together some shoddy compromise that is worth nothing. But a spectacular failure would be much better, for at least it might get the donkey's attention.

Or more precisely, the frog's attention. Environmentalists often compare human behavior to that of frogs -- who, if you drop them into a pot of boiling water, will jump right out again and survive. But sit a frog in a pot of cool water, raise the heat gradually, and he'll sit there happily until he boils to death.

Are humans really like frogs? Of course they are. Take Malaysians, for example.

A hazy situation

The haze is gone from Malaysia now, but a cabaret group, Instant Cafe, is still getting a lot of mileage out of it. They were playing a corporate function in Kuala Lumpur last weekend -- people who'd coughed and wept their way through the haze for all of September and October -- and the audience rocked with laughter when they did their ''Haze'' song:

Come and visit Malaysia.

Come and stay for lots of days

You don't need your suntan lotion.

You'll be safe from UV rays.

No need to sunbathe by the ocean.

Get dark by strolling in our haze.

The ''haze'' is mostly smoke from the thousands of forest fires that are set in Indonesia every dry season: First you log out any commercially valuable trees, then you burn the rest because that's the cheapest way to clear the land for cultivation. The smoke from huge areas of burning forest drifts over neighboring Malaysia, blocking out the sun and causing respiratory disorders.

The haze was particularly bad in 1991, when the eruption of Mount Pinatubo added extra ash to the atmosphere. It was even worse this year because of the prolonged drought caused by El Nino. But it happens every year, and it will go on happening until the region's rain forests are all gone. (At the current loss rate of around 3 percent per year, that will be around 30 years from now.)

Yet few Malaysians think they can do anything about it because they know that the companies that are setting most of the fires in Indonesia have close links with Indonesian President Suharto's government in Jakarta, and generally get their way.

They are also vaguely aware that destroying the forests raises the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. But that problem isn't affecting their daily lives yet, and they have lots of present worries to keep them

busy.

A breed apart

People in large industrialized democracies like the United States like to think they are different: better information, more open societies, a more educated public. But, in fact,they are equally captive to special interest groups.

The United States, for example, promised at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio to cut its carbon dioxide emissions back to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Instead, U.S. carbon emissions are 13 percent higher than in 1990, and Washington is now saying that it can't get back down to the target figure until 2013. What happened?

The Clinton administration knows what it should do. At a preparatory meeting of the climate change conference in Geneva earlier this year, the United States mobilized the world's big insurance companies, who proved that global warming was already hitting their balance sheets in terms of claims for storm damage.

That debunked the ''junk science'' (paid for by fossil fuel producers) that pretends a global warming is just an unproven hypothesis. With the European Union offering emission cuts to 14 percent below 1990 levels by 2010 and the U.S. government also apparently on board, success in Kyoto seemed within reach.

True, the Australians, who export a lot of coal, were arguing that there should be no common global target, just individual targets tailored to individual countries' situations. (Agree to that, and you will spend the next century in negotiations.)

Some oil-rich states were even insisting that if the world cut back on fossil fuel use, they must be compensated financially. But it was clear that once the United States openly espoused a tough target for cutting emissions, a lot of the resistance would crumble.

What went wrong? Basically, Mr. Clinton belatedly realized that U.S. fossil fuel producers, in alliance with other major industries that worry about higher energy costs, control enough U.S. senators to block any treaty that hurts their interests. So rather than fight a hopeless battle, he has chosen pre-emptive surrender.

Getting hotter

Just as in Jakarta, the tail is wagging the dog. Many more Americans have an interest in curbing global warming than in the industries that cause it, but the majority is less conscious of its interests: The water in the pot is getting hotter, but only gradually, So the prospective victims exert less political pressure, and the other side gets its way.

Without a serious American offer on cutting emissions, none of the other hold-outs at Kyoto will be under any pressure to yield, for the United States is the most flagrant polluter of all (4 percent of the world's population, 24 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions). So the best that can be hoped for at Kyoto is dramatic failure.

The Europeans should stick to their proposal and make no compromises. They won't get their way, but that will at least ensure that the problem isn't shelved for five years after a cynical deal that leaves everyone free to do whatever they want.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based journalist.

Pub Date: 12/04/97

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