The most earth-shaking event of the past two weeks had to do with leadership, or lack thereof, but it did not unfold in Florida. It happened in the Netherlands. The stunning lack of leadership came from the Clinton-Gore administration.
The meeting in The Hague was the sixth attempt since the Kyoto conference of 1997 to forge an international agreement that could actually do something about climate change. At Kyoto the industrial countries made solemn promises to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Europe promised to cut back 8 percent from its 1990 level, Japan by 6 percent, the U.S. by 7 percent.
These cutbacks seem laughable in the face of the climatic facts. Scientists worldwide agree that the reduction needed to stabilize the climate is actually more like 80 percent. The latest scientific assessment has almost doubled the predicted rate of warming if no changes are made. The Arctic ice pack has thinned by 40 percent. The Inuit people are seeing thunderstorms for the first time in legend or memory. Glaciers are almost gone from Glacier National Park. However, since Kyoto, the world’s nations have not even been able to agree on a definition of “cut back.”
You would think “cut back” would mean, you know, cut back, burn less fossil fuel. Everyone except the far right wing of the Republican Party realizes that oil, gas, and coal burning are the main activities that have sent the climate into bigger floods, droughts, hurricanes, and El Ninos.
But the present administration, which as we know has trouble defining what “is” is, wants to define “cut back” in a way that will irritate no oil, coal, gas, electric, or automobile company, and no driver of a gas-guzzling vehicle. Therefore it wants to cut back using forests and farms.
There is some sense to this proposal. Trees and soils can absorb carbon dioxide released by fossil fuel burning. It would be great to subsidize responsible farmers and forest managers. The possibility has even opened the minds of some Western Republican senators to the whole climate issue.
But calculating how much carbon is absorbed by which forests and farms is a tricky task, especially when politicians do it. Not only should you give credit for tree growth or the buildup of soil humus, you should issue demerits for tree cutting or the destruction of humus. There is a terrible political temptation to ignore the demerits, to fudge the numbers, to pretend you’ve helped out the atmosphere when you’ve actually done no such thing.
You may be able to fool the voters that way, but not the atmosphere. Nor the scientists who know how to do proper carbon accounts. Nor, it turns out, the European nations, most of which take climate change very seriously. After days of wrangling, they finally refused to let the U.S. get away with cheating.
So everyone went home mad (at us) and the climate continues to deteriorate. After eight years with Al Gore in as much power as he may ever be, our country is far from a global leader on this issue. We are the obstructionist, the outlaw, the Saddam Hussein. And George W. cares as much about climate change as you would expect from a Texas oilman.
So here’s the good news. A knowledgeable and courageous U.S. president could help enormously in leading the world’s nations toward saving the climate, but an ignorant or servile president can’t stop committed nations, companies, or people from doing it anyway.
Whatever the United States does, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany have detailed plans to cut their greenhouse emissions by 20 to 50 percent — and in the process pioneer and patent the new energy technologies that will inevitably replace coal and oil.
Seven corporations, who together emit enough greenhouse gases to qualify as the world’s 12th largest emitting nation, have pledged cutbacks of 15 percent — twice the Kyoto targets. They even include two forward-looking oil companies, Royal Dutch/Shell and British Petroleum (whose new motto is “Beyond Petroleum.”) Polaroid is working toward cuts of 25 percent, DuPont 65 percent. Real cuts, not offset by trees.
Honda’s and Toyota’s new cars that get 50-70 miles per gallon are selling faster than expected. Daimler-Benz is close to marketing fuel-cell cars that run on hydrogen (and emit only water). In a few years, Ford is planning to market a fuel-cell-powered SUV.
And you and I don’t need a president or a global treaty to tell us to use stop wasting energy. We benefit immediately from doing so, with lower bills, less air and water pollution, less dependence on the Middle East, and ultimately, hopefully, a climate that is no longer zinging out of control.
No point in waiting around for leadership, in Florida or The Hague. Leaders only get their power from us, anyway.