What to do about global warming

That global warming is a major threat to life on the planet is finally receiving universal acknowledgement. Last month’s UN report from hundreds of scientists concluded that global warming was “very likely” caused by mankind. The report was approved by 113 nations, including the United States, and will be presented at a summit meeting in June.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported this has been the warmest winter since records were first kept in 1880. The 10 warmest have occurred since 1995, with global surface temperatures increasing approximately 0.32 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1976.



Countries respond

What has been the response of the industrially developed nations? Leaders from 27 European nations met in Brussels in March and agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (which cause global warming) by 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and could “go to 30 percent if other countries join” — an obvious poke at the U.S., which accounts for 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases.

The Blair government went even further by proposing mandatory reductions in carbon emissions in the UK by 26 percent to 32 percent by 2020, investing $12 billion in offshore wind-generating capacity to meet this goal.

Last week in Congress, former Vice President Al Gore testified that legislative changes are needed to forestall potentially irreversible global warming. Gore suggested a ban on all new coal plants that lack technology to contain carbon dioxide emissions and urged Congress to mandate a freeze on the nation’s carbon-emissions levels and then start a plan to roll those back significantly. Steps to take on global warming face significant obstacles in the U.S.



Energy, car interests dominate

Meanwhile, an internal draft from the Bush administration projects that the U.S. will emit 20 percent more (that’s right, more) greenhouse gases in 2020 than it did in 2000! The original Kyoto Protocol, which the Bush administration refused to sign, agreed to a modest 5 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2012. Bush claimed signing the pact “would harm the U.S. economy.”

Dr. James Hansen, top climate scientist at NASA, said the White House has tried to silence him. As reported on “60 Minutes,” the Bush administration began editing climate science reports to make global warming seem less threatening. Editing was done by lawyers and politicians like former Chief of Staff on Environmental Quality Phil Cooney, who had been a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute and has since left to work for Exxon Mobil.

Why are the other industrial nations far ahead of the U.S. in meeting this planetary crisis? The European nations and Japan also have profit-driven capitalist economies, but the direction of our economy is driven largely by a few giant mega-industries: the military-industrial complex, which devours hundreds of billions of dollars per year of public funds, and the fossil fuel industries, being joined now by the new ethanol industry, which feed into dozens of subsidiary industries in our automobile “driven” society. With record profits last year, the oil industry can afford to influence elections and gain legislative support using scores of lobbyists.



Developing green niche industries

Most other nations cannot compete in these areas, but the same inhibition to controlling emissions within the Goliath of the industrial world has provided space for progressive niche industries in smaller capitalist nations. Denmark, now the world’s leading manufacturer and exporter of wind turbines, obtains 20 percent of its electricity from wind energy and aims at 50 percent by 2030. Spain, a leading manufacturer of solar panels, and aiming to become the world leader, requires rooftop solar heaters on all new residential and commercial buildings. In Iceland, 93 percent of homes are heated by geothermal energy.

This is not to minimize the importance of people’s movements to influence economic policies. One of the most progressive nations with respect to the challenge is Germany, which has had a strong Green movement. It has the highest production of wind energy, is a close second to Japan in solar generation, and is phasing out coal subsidies.

In the U.S. there are also strong business interests calling on the government to support clean energy projects. In January, 10 major U.S. energy, chemical and manufacturing companies, including Duke Energy Corp., Merrill Lynch, The Capital Group (which manages $850 billion in mutual funds) and General Electric, called for a national limit on carbon-dioxide emissions. They may be motivated by a vision of the future for long-term profits, but if their goal is for renewable energy solutions, it deserves our support.

The level of public input will probably determine the direction our country takes and with it, the earth’s future.

David Kennell (kennell@borcim.wustl.edu) is professor emeritus of molecular microbiology at the Washington University School of Medicine.