The earth is getting warmer and it could have grave effects for the future of the planet.
According to a draft report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in October, the Earth's average surface temperature could rise between 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit and 11 degrees over the next hundred years. It is an astronomical increase that could result in drastic changes in world-wide weather patterns, an increased spread of diseases and other dangers.
"The changes we're looking at now are larger than anything we've seen in the last 10,000 years," Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research told CNN.
The primary reason for the increasing temperatures is pollution, in particular emission of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide pumped from car exhausts and industrial smokestacks. The gases form an atmospheric blanket that traps heat near the Earth's surface and leads to warmer temperatures.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the earth's temperature has increased by 1 degree in the last 100 years. The UCS also reports that 1998 was the warmest year ever recorded and that the 10 warmest years on record have occurred in the last 15 years.
As the world gets warmer, the potential grows for severe disruptions, including a rise in sea level, more heat waves and droughts, more severe weather events that result in floods and property destruction, and the spread of tropical diseases to areas where they've never been known before.
That's why it is important to cut the amount of greenhouse gases being spewed into the atmosphere and to protect as much forested land as is possible.
A great opportunity to do just that will present itself later this month when world leaders meet to discuss implementation of the Kyoto Protocols, a 1997 international agreement designed to stem global warming. Under the agreement, countries were to reduce man-made heat-trapping gases to 1990 levels by no later than 2012. The negotiations are slated to take place Nov. 13-24 in the Hague, Netherlands.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the meeting is critical to reducing emissions of the heat-trapping gases that cause global warming. And, the organization points out, "the United States will play a major role in the success or failure of these negotiations."
Unfortunately, the United States seems ready to settle for a bad compromise that will allow polluters to wriggle off the hook, while earning the US credits toward meeting its pollution goals without actually making much progress in that direction.
The administration is proposing that countries get as much credit for using forests and agricultural land to remove the greenhouse gas from the air as they would for reducing the amount of pollutants factories and cars dump into the air.
The administration believes American forests and farms can store more than 300 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, or about half the amount that must be cut from US emissions to meet the Kyoto targets -- a 7% reduction in US emissions by 2012.
It's a pain-free way for the United States to meet goals set in the Kyoto Protocol, allowing the US to avoid slashing its emissions and making compliance easier and cheaper.
The use of so-called "carbon sinks" should only be considered as a small part of an international climate-change program that includes a long-term strategy for curbing emissions from fossil fuels. And it only should be considered if strong rules are put in place to ensure that existing forests are protected and that countries do not get credit for clear-cutting old-growth trees and replacing them with new plantings.
One plan that makes sense is "clean development mechanism" of the Kyoto Protocol, under which industrialized nations would receive credit by investing in projects that reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in developing countries and support their sustainable development. The Hague meetings will feature negotiations over whether forest-based projects -- ones that reduce emissions by helping developing countries conserve and restore their forests -- will be included in the CDM.
The UCS says inclusion, tied to strong rules designed to ensure that forest-based projects are sound, can have a major long-term impact on the problem.
"Well-designed and implemented projects to protect and restore forests through the CDM can be an effective means to help slow global warming, conserve biodiversity, and contribute to sustainable development," the UCS says.
It is important that clean development is tied to a systematic plan to reduce the amount of pollution pumped into the atmosphere. That means encouraging mass transportation and requiring cars to burn less fuel and to burn it more cleanly. And it means limiting suburban sprawl, which promotes automobile use, by focusing development in tighter nodes and redeveloping urban cores. And it means finding ways to limit smokestack emissions during the manufacturing process and reusing the energy lost to the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the administration's plan would remove the onus from polluters to cut production of carbon dioxide because it would credit the US for existing forested lands and not require it to expand its forests. Under the plan, businesses will have no incentive to end their dirty practices, because they will be able to rely the new "carbon sinks" to clear the air of the greenhouse gases disgorged by their smokestacks. This may hold down costs for businesses, and prices for consumers, but it does so artificially.
There is a societal cost to air pollution caused by driving gas-guzzling cars and burning coal and other polluting fuels, a cost currently not included in the corporate bottom line. Imposing strict guidelines on the use of fossil fuels and coal and forcing businesses to bear the actual cost of their business practices are necessary tools in fighting the growing proliferation of greenhouse gases and the climate changes that come along with it.
But this costs money up front. It's why American businesses and the Republican Congress have opposed the treaty since it was drafted. They say that lowering carbon dioxide emissions would lead to higher energy prices and higher business costs that ultimately would slow the economy.
There is nothing wrong with planting more trees. In fact, the administration should be applauded if its plan were to lead to a reduction in the kinds of development that strip the world of its forests and agricultural lands. But putting all its attention on this approach lets us all off the hook for the damage we do to the environment every day.
Cutting back on polluting activities makes a lot more sense.
Hank Kalet is a poet and the managing editor of The South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org