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Global Warming: Keep the Foundation

November 21, 2000|JOSEPH F.C. DiMENTO | Joseph F.C. DiMento, a professor of international environmental law at UC Irvine, is a nonofficial observer at the meetings in The Hague. E-mail: jfdiment@uci.edu

THE HAGUE — Do we scratch the flawed Kyoto agreement on global warming, or do we build on it?

As delegates and observers argue about what needs to be done about global warming, there is a sense that the problem is now more serious than it was when the international agreement on climate change was patched together in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, while the positions of the negotiators have remained the same--or even hardened.

Outside the giant conference center where the sixth international global warming conference is meeting, a few protesters have built symbolic dikes, graphically warning of sea level rises caused by global warming. Inside, blame for not making the Kyoto protocol work is assigned variously to the United States, Saudi Arabia and other rich oil exporters, the European Union or China and its allies on this issue. And real concern revolves around whether the framework negotiated in Kyoto should be scuttled. International delegates to this conference seem to be going through the motions, with many of them expecting to yet again gloss over differences with platitudes and schedule more meetings in the future.

There is an alternative. Surely the United States cannot cave to unrealistic expectations. But it can act in a statesmanlike way. Or as international law says, it can follow the leadership principle. It can keep the Kyoto protocol--which sets modest reduction targets for global warming gases for developed nations--alive to promote international cooperation for environmental protection.

How to do so, of course, is the question. But it is not as unbearably complicated as some would suggest. Here are some ways:

* The United States can commit to capping just how much of its commitment to 2008-12 goals it will realize through controversial "flexible mechanisms" such as trading emissions credits with poorer nations. Relying primarily on these is objectionable because they isolate Americans from confronting their profligate consumption patterns. Doing this would create domestic debate on how we cut back. But we have had these discussions before over our own Clean Air Act goals. And we have time to rationally allocate the burden among Midwest power plants, Southern California drivers and stockyards nationwide. (Cattle belch and do other unpleasant things that produce methane.)

* The U.S. can agree to defer to an independent scientific conclusion about just how effective carbon "sinks" are. Sinks are natural and human-altered absorbers of greenhouse gases by vegetation, soil and some aerosols. We should defer our now almost religious attachment to this solution until better models, better data and more complete results are available.

* We can provide subsidies and tax credits to industry to reward early attempts to slow down the Earth's warming. This will influence companies to invest in technologies, here and abroad, that can slow the proliferating use of machines, appliances and equipment that help trap the menacing greenhouse materials.

The United States is big and rich enough to lead, to commit, to take positions that are models for the world that our children will inherit.

The alternative may be to start anew, jettisoning much of what has been learned in countless meetings and innumerable studies in the past decade. A new model might be better when finished than a salvaged Kyoto protocol, but while it is being fashioned, average temperatures will continue to rise and with that will come more floods, droughts, cyclones and other extreme weather events. Meanwhile, our reputation as world leader will be tarnished.

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