A Failure to Protect the Future

Americans love their SUVs. They love them so much, in fact, that the American delegation to the November climate change conference was willing to let it stand in the way of cleaner air.

SUVs didn't really kill the talks. But the massive, tank-like vehicles that suck up gas stand as our most visible reminder of the United States' backward progress on the issue.

In 1997, when the United States signed onto the Convention on Climate Change in Kyoto, it agreed to cut its emission of carbon gas from cars, factories and power plants back to 1990 levels by 2010 -- or about 7%. Now, three years later, American emissions are on the rise and we will need to slash our emission of carbon gases by 35%.

That's why the US balked. Rather than seeking ways to cut emissions, it sought ways to get around emission cuts altogether. It proposed allowing richer countries to buy up emission credits from countries who reduce their carbon emissions by more than the treaty required and by allowing countries like the United States and Canada to claim credit for existing forests (or carbon sinks) and for selling off old nuclear plants to the Third World.

As Gwynne Dyer pointed out in The Star-Ledger of New Jersey, "No actual cut in carbon emissions would be achieved by this strategy. The energy-profligate countries would simply be able to take credit for reduction that had already happened anyway."

The Minnesota Daily at the University of Minnesota said the US proposal served as the "beginning for the conference's failure." Our proposal that the US meet only "half of its originally proposed goal," with the use of carbon sinks and emissions trading making up the other half, "tells the world that the United States does not intend to do its part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, considered by many to be at least partly responsible for global warming."

This approach, of course, allows the US to look like it's addressing global warming without feeling the pain and inconvenience that cuts in emissions inevitably will cause. We will need to change the way we manufacture goods, the way we drive, what we drive and how we heat our homes if we are going to keep the world from getting warmer and avoid the dangers that come with the rise in temperatures.

As I pointed out in an earlier column, the Union of Concerned Scientists says the earth's temperature has increased by 1 degree in the last 100 years, that 1998 was the warmest year ever recorded and that the 10 warmest years on record have occurred in the last 15 years. And an October draft report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the Earth's average surface temperature could rise between 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit and 11 degrees over the next hundred years.

With that increase in temperatures comes a growing potential for 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 is why 200 American students spent Thanksgiving weekend in the Netherlands at the Greenpeace-sponsored US Student Climate Summit to protest the lack of US commitment to cleaner air.

"The intent of the summit was to bring a youthful perspective to the Kyoto Protocol negotiations on climate change," Sarah Wright, a Bradley University senior told the school's paper, The Bradley Scout.

According to Wright, the students hoped to show their disappointment with the US position and to show support for Europe.

"Going into the conference, we knew that our US delegates were not very supportive of a treaty that would truly cut our greenhouse gas emissions," Wright told the Scout.

The American delegation, of course, did not disappoint. Despite mounting scientific evidence of the dangers of global warming, the US continues to seek out pain-free ways to address international concern rather than developing a systematic plan to reduce the amount of pollution pumped into the atmosphere.

Part of the reason for this is our deformed political system. As Gwynne Dyer pointed out in the Ledger, campaign-finance rules "give special interests like the oil and car industries such power they effectively control American policy on global warming."

And the oil, auto and power industries have nothing to gain from an international treaty that would put the onus on them to clean up their act. Oil company profits are tied to oil and gasoline sales, which rise when there are more cars on the road. The same can be said about the auto-makers, who not only profit from the sheer number of vehicles out there, but are willing to sell vehicles -- the SUV and the minivan -- that do not have to meet gas mileage or safety requirements. And deregulation of the energy industry is as likely, because of cost, to hinder efforts to move away from dirty, coal-powered energy plants to cleaner energy sources.

If we were serious about cleaning up the air we would force all vehicles -- including SUVs, minivans and small trucks -- to meet stricter mileage requirements and burn their fuel more cleanly. We would encourage mass transportation and limit suburban sprawl, which promotes automobile use, by focusing development in tighter nodes and redeveloping urban cores. And we would find ways to limit smokestack emissions during the manufacturing process and reuse the energy lost to the atmosphere.

The cost of global warming is far greater than the cost of preventing it. We may have to pay some money up front to take care of the problem, but it is money well-spent if future generations can breath a little easier.

Hank Kalet is a poet and the managing editor of The South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press in New Jersey. He can be reached at

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