This past year has seen torrential downpours, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, decimation of fish populations, heat waves and drought. While jokes about global warming help ease anxiety, it’s really not very funny. Most credible scientists agree that the record-breaking "natural" disasters of the past few years, for example those brought on by last winter’s El Niño, are partly attributable to the billions of tons of "greenhouse gases" that have been spewed into the atmosphere during the last 150 years.
Apologists point out other factors that, of course, contribute to the increased perception of climactic catastrophe. For example, in many less-developed countries economic and population pressures are forcing more people to live in exposed and marginal areas vulnerable to extremes of weather. In developed countries like the US, developers have become fond of building resorts and houses for rich people on marginal and exposed areas. In both cases, the mainstream news media has become more effective in sensationalizing losses to human life and insurance companies.
But fools aside, global warming is a fact of life. The only real hope for averting catastrophic consequences is to immediately stop discharging the gases that cause global warming. Obviously, we could do this if there were the political will. Unfortunately, the governing bodies theoretically "in charge" of finding a solution to the climate change problem are more concerned with creating a climate friendly for corporate profits than in maintaining a climate friendly for human beings. And in the short-sighted view of corporations, reducing greenhouse gas emissions means investing in new technology. Besides, they stand to gain the most with climate change as new markets open for technological fixes.
What is global warming anyway?
Global warming is a result of physical and biological responses to the massive increase of certain gases, especially carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxides, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the atmosphere. These gases are collectively known as "greenhouse gases", because they act like a greenhouse, trapping long-wave solar radiation that would otherwise be reflected back into space.
Most of the greenhouse gases occur naturally (though not the CFCs), and historically there has been a balance between the amount of CO2 emitted by plants and animals or through fires and volcanoes, and the ability of natural carbon "sinks" such as ocean plankton and forests to absorb the carbon. But the rate at which stored carbon-based (fossil) fuels like oil, coal, and gas have been burned during the 150 years since the industrial revolution has dramatically overwhelmed the capacity of any natural ecological process to cope. In addition, these "sinks" have less capacity than ever before, as a result of world-wide decimation of forest lands, and reductions in plankton density due to damage caused by increased UV-B radiation (because CFCs have depleted the protective atmospheric ozone layer).
What will it mean?
Because these gases trap extra heat from the sun, already the world-wide average temperature has risen about a degree. That may not sound like much, but the effects multiply: as polar ice caps melt and warmer water expands, sea levels rise and ocean currents change. Higher temperatures create changes in wind patterns, which affects the distribution and frequency of floods, droughts, and fires. Tornadoes and hurricanes become more frequent and intense. Hotter ocean waters kill coral reefs, which are a crucial part of ocean ecosystems, and populations of insects that carry disease and damage crops explode. Despite the fact that over 80% of the excess greenhouse gases have been contributed by the industrialized countries, the impact will disproportionately be borne by the world’s poor. Rising temperatures and an increase of "natural" disasters will lead to massive crop failures and loss of coastal land. Countries whose economies depend on agriculture are most vulnerable to food shortages and economic ruin-the rich are unlikely to ever go hungry. As more and more people are displaced from subsistence agriculture, they will have few options but to migrate to the peripheries of cities, joining the burgeoning pool of cheap labor for the transnational corporations. And in this era of neoliberalism, city governments are unlikely to be able to develop the infrastructure to cope with these new immigrants. Policy think tanks already warn that these changes may cause "social unrest" that will be detrimental to business.
What’s being done about it?
Some degree of global warming cannot be avoided. But how bad it will be depends on how quickly action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase natural carbon sinks. There have been big international climate meetings every year for the last 10 years now, but to date, pretty much nothing has been done.
In 1994 the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change went into effect. While this is technically a legally-binding treaty, signed by 165 countries (plus the EEC), its agreements are pathetically weak and general, leaving specific obligations to be worked out later. The US has been stalling and backpedaling all along, finally agreeing at last December’s Kyoto Protocol meeting to reduce its emissions 7% by 2010, based on 1990 levels. In this competition to see who could be the worst, the overall reduction is only planned to be 5.2%. (According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s First Assessment Report, CO2 cuts of 60-80% are necessary to stabilize the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.) In addition, the treaty leaves lots of loopholes, for example, provisions for emission trading between countries. Worst of all, there’s no real mechanism to enforce even these laughable goals. The November 1998 meeting in Buenos Aires to continue the negotiations has focused on how industrialized countries are going to facilitate development in the rest of the world without increasing their emissions to industrialized-world levels.
Negotiations have gotten hung up on dozens of different arguments that are forwarded to justify inaction: issues of equity, technology transfer, how to allocate responsibility, scientific uncertainty, etc. Should we measure all greenhouse gases, or just CO2? Should a country’s current or past role in causing climate change determine its share of the sacrifices now needed to minimize it? Should a country’s emissions quota be calculated according to current emission levels, populations size, or GNP? Who should pay for saving remaining tropical (and temperate!) rainforests? Is the climate change data biased?
Should responsibility index be based on past, present or future emissions?
These issues of equity have a real basis-per capita, developed countries emit 10s of times more greenhouse gases than developing countries. For every person in the US, 20 tons of CO2 are released each year. So although the US makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, it produces 25% of the world’s greenhouse gases-the same amount as 100 developing countries, making up 80% of the world’s population, combined. Rich countries have obviously benefited from the industrialization that has produced so much greenhouse gas.
Government officials from countries that have been under-developed argue that it would be unfair for emissions regulations to prevent their countries from industrializing. On the other hand, if the under-developed countries were to reach industrial levels of emissions, the scope of the problem would be incomprehensible. Despite the validity of these questions, they are being used to weaken and stall regulations that might curtail corporate profits. Clearly, the industrialized countries need to subsidize under-developed countries, since they’ve been robbing them for years.
Besides these questions, all kinds of other distracting arguments have been put forward advocating inaction. For example, "No matter what policies we adopt, we’re already in for it." "People and the economy will adapt to maximize profit and minimize losses." "Economically-vulnerable sectors are not that significant to the economy (i.e. agriculture and forestry)." "Only low-lying and island areas will really be affected by the ocean level rising 3 feet." "Even if we change policies today, we won’t see the effects for a long time, and the money we spend today will be worth less per person in the future." "Scientists aren’t sure exactly what will happen, so let’s do nothing."
These arguments are totally specious. There is no excuse for inaction. Something (even if we don’t know exactly what) is going to happen-in fact it is already happening. The damage will be catastrophic and irreversible. It’s going to take a long time to fix, so we better start now. All the international agreements are based upon future reductions to some percentage of 1990 levels. But the amount emitted in 1990 was not sustainable-it would continue to enhance the greenhouse effect. We have to reduce to pre industrial revolution levels, plus compensate for the population growth since then. On the bright side, we already have access to technology that does not emit these gases.
So what should be done?
We must work on every level on which we can have influence to immediately reduce emissions of all greenhouse gases: household, workplace, local government, state and federal regulations, etc. There are many changes we could make now that would be pretty painless, yet would make a huge difference. Three-fourths of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions come from fossil fuel combustion. Most power plants burn coal or gas, and every automobile produces about 2 tons of CO2 per year. For starters, we can demand that gas and utility companies develop and implement technologies that increase the efficiency of fuel burning, and maintain their pipelines and wells to minimize waste.
But instead of mining and burning coal, gasoline, oil, and natural gas, we should be generating power from renewable, non-polluting sources. There are many options: photo voltaic electricity; solar heat, hot water and lighting; wind turbines; bio-mass fuel (burning plant material, which causes no net change in carbon); small-scale hydro-electricity; and geothermal heat and power. Even without calculating the real, environmental costs of power, many of these are already cheaper than fossil fuels, use local labor and materials, can be built and maintained locally. According to one estimate, it would cost only $60 billion to provide photo voltaic power to 1 billion people-this is less than 0.5% of current military expenditure.
Companies will milk fossil fuels for as long as they are profitable (and they’ve invested a lot in infrastructure) then just transition to sustainable power as soon as they’ll make more that way. Unless local communities show leadership, most power solutions will probably be centralized and run on a for-profit basis. For example, ENRON already has plans to build a 100 megawatt solar power station in the Nevada desert.
We can also fight for regulatory structures and taxes that encourage energy conservation and mass transit, and end counter-productive policies like subsidizing clear-cuts and private automobile transportation. We should make every effort to reduce unnecessary lighting, re-use materials and buy less stuff, and make better use of solar light and heat in buildings. Currently, most power companies’ pricing structure encourage more energy use, just as development patterns and transportation allocation encourage more car use.
We can force governments to require the use of only renewable energies. We can require that money be allocated for public transportation. Not only will this slow the rate of global warming, it will improve our lives now. Air quality would improve, there would be less acid rain and erosion, and biodiversity would be protected. One study in Norway indicated that 70% of the cost of a carbon tax of 2.75% of the GNP would be recouped through direct, non-climactic benefits.
Clearly the time to act is now. Although intensifying the pressure on national governments is crucial, we should not expect that these corporate-run government bodies will suddenly begin acting in our interests. While individualistic lifestyle changes are not the answer, collective changes in our resource use can be.
What can a city do to discourage use of cars, a major source of CO2 emissions?
- Limit parking in downtown areas
- Encourage car pools, van pools, and high-occupancy vehicle lanes
- Dedicate arterial roads to public transit vehicles
- Invest in public transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure
- Implement congestion pricing technologies that charge automobile drivers for the road space they use
- Implement traffic-calming measures in the city
- Pass zoning ordinances that encourage mixed-use and high-density development, facilitating non-motorized transportation.
In addition, cities can use by-laws, codes and ordinances to prescribe appropriate energy standards for new and retrofit construction. For example, require that buildings be oriented to take maximum advantage of the sun for light and space heating, or that trees be planted to provide shade.