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Sweltering in the Greenhouse : Vast Problem of Earth's Warming Belongs on Summit Agenda

August 01, 1986|JAMES GUSTAVE SPETH | James Gustave Speth is president of the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based policy-research center

The overheating of the Earth, caused by our continued pollution of the atmosphere, is no longer a problem just for our children. Scientists now predict that the global warming--which causes rises in sea levels, agricultural disruption and unpredictable weather--will occur in our lifetimes if current trends continue.

As senators and scientists agreed at a recent congressional hearing on the problem, there is no time left simply for more research and analysis of the climate changes brought about by the greenhouse effect and the related depletion of the Earth's protective ozone layer.

A powerful way to bring immediate worldwide attention to this issue would be to place it on the agenda of the next U.S.-Soviet summit meeting and establish a distinguished panel from both countries to help decide what needs to be done.

The carbon dioxide that we spew into the air from burning coal and oil, along with other man-made pollutants, traps the Earth's heat. One of the chemicals aggravating the greenhouse effect--chlorofluorocarbons used in aerosols, refrigeration and Styrofoam--also is destroying the Earth's ozone layer, which protects us from cancers caused by the sun's ultraviolet rays.

The effects of these atmospheric alterations can be profound: flooding of coastal areas, changes in ocean currents, damage to human health, more frequent and widespread droughts, major changes in rainfall patterns and the loss of enormous amounts of wetlands.

In only 20 years we will probably feel the damage wrought by the man-made gases and pollutants that we and past generations have already emitted into the atmosphere. The Earth's temperature then could be nearly two degrees warmer--"the warmest the Earth has been in the last 100,000 years," according to James Hansen of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The U.S. Department of Energy has summed up the stakes in grim terms: "Human effects on atmospheric composition may yet overwhelm the life-support system crafted in nature over billions of years."

The need for the United States and the Soviet Union to address the greenhouse issue is critical. A major increase in global temperatures may radically change the productivity of the two countries' grain belts. Together they own 44% of total world coal reserves--and are jointly responsible for almost 40% of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.

A discussion of the greenhouse issue at a U.S.-Soviet summit meeting could include a joint statement describing the problem and what is at stake, the establishment of a panel of leaders and experts from both countries, and a mandate for the panel to develop recommendations for prompt action.

Another essential effort is international action to halt the world's tropical deforestation. As forests are cut and burned, carbon that is stored in the vegetation and the soil is released into the atmosphere, aggravating the greenhouse effect. Emissions from biotic sources, such as tropical forests, currently are estimated to equal 20% of carbon-dioxide emissions from the use of fossil fuel.

The United States has a double stake in the forests of the tropics. They are the repositories of perhaps 50% of the genetic wealth of the planet--a vast storehouse for the development of new seeds, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and other materials, as well as phenomenal wildlife.

The U.S. stake in these forests is so great that perhaps some type of global bargain should be considered, such as the easing of international debts in exchange for forest conservation. Of the top 17 most heavily indebted countries, 12 are destroying their tropical forests at extraordinarily rapid rates, contributing to the world's annual loss of 27 million acres: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, the Philippines and Venezuela.

More immediate and attainable policy changes also must be made--among them a ban on non-essential uses of chlorofluorocarbons and a limit on their production, and promotion of steady increases in energy efficiency in vehicles, homes and industry. Despite lower fuel prices, this is not the time to reduce efforts to conserve energy or to slow development of nonpolluting energy sources, such as solar and wind energy.

Environmental-impact statements should be prepared on all projects that may contribute to or be affected by climate changes. In the long run we should consider more aggressive actions, such as carbon taxes, to discourage the excessive use of coal and shale and to finance reforestation, solar-energy development and energy-efficient technologies.

In altering the Earth's climate we are carrying out a giant planetary experiment with uncertain but potentially devastating consequences. The responsibility for the problem is ours; a serious response can no longer be safely postponed. The United States, the Soviet Union and other countries now should act in a way that recognizes our role as trustees of the Earth for this and future generations.

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