The Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 international treaty aimed at reducing greenhouse gases, went into effect on Feb. 16 — without the participation of the United States, the world’s main greenhouse gas producer.

Greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide and other emissions from cars and industrial combustion — contribute to global warming. That process, scientists say, will have disastrous consequences, including droughts, flooding and destruction of highly populated coastal areas and island nations.

Levels of carbon dioxide, the primary global warming gas in our atmosphere, have increased by 30 percent in the past 100 years.

In a report released this January, the International Climate Change Task Force said, “Preventing dangerous climate change” from global warming “must be seen as a precondition for prosperity and a public good, like national security and public health.” The world must rein in global warming by the year 2100, the report warns, or it will cause “mass loss of life, the spread or exacerbation of diseases, dislocation of populations, geopolitical instability, and a pronounced decrease in the quality of life.”

Under the Kyoto treaty, developed nations agreed to reduce their annual greenhouse gas emissions to 5.2 percent below the 1990 level. The major stumbling block, environmental groups say, is the refusal of the U.S. to participate. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. emits a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases.

These gases coalesce in the upper levels of the atmosphere and act as a barrier, keeping in heat. This leads to warming of the earth’s atmosphere. The Bush administration claimed, when it pulled out of Kyoto negotiations in 2001, that global warming lacks scientific support, and that implementation would damage the U.S. economy. A few scientists, mainly with ties to greenhouse gas producing industries, agree with Bush. They claim that warming in recent years is due to such things as “natural” fluctuations in climate, or volcanic or solar activity.

Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California have utilized a new study method, involving the analysis of changing ocean temperatures to measure global warming. This method has provided “perhaps the most compelling evidence yet that [human-caused] global warming is happening right now,” says Tim Barnett, a marine physicist at the institute. “The statistical significance of these results is far too strong to be merely dismissed and should wipe out much of the uncertainty about the reality of global warming.”

Many environmentalists accuse the Bush administration of working with fossil fuel corporations who will not tolerate giving up even a small portion of their mega-profits.

“The Bush administration withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in early 2001,” says the environmental organization Greenpeace. “With the active support (some would say under the instruction) of the American fossil fuel industry and its well-funded front groups, the U.S. government worked tirelessly to derail the treaty.”

Canada ratified the Kyoto treaty over the objections of Alberta, a province whose economy is heavily based on fossil fuels. Alberta’s premier argued that the treaty would ruin these industries and cause economic hardship for industrial workers. However, the costs are widely expected to be manageable. The treaty requires the cutback of greenhouse gases, not of fossil fuels. Fossil fuel corporations can simply employ cleaner methods of production and use of their products, with only a small rise in costs.

Rich George, CEO of Suncor, a Canadian energy company based heavily in fossil fuels, said that the costs of Kyoto were just “a small bump in the road.” British Petroleum has already reduced its emissions below the Canadian target, making an actual gain in its profits.

Even without the U.S. onboard, many environmentalists see Kyoto as a reason for “moderate celebration.” The treaty marks the first time an internationally coordinated group of nations has taken united action to reduce the amount of greenhouses gases emitted.

While the treaty focuses entirely on industrialized nations until 2012, there are post-2012 plans that would begin to rein in much smaller, but still substantial, emissions of greenhouse gases from lesser-developed nations.

China, the world’s most populous country, said in the state-run China Daily, “the Kyoto Protocol spotlighted environmental challenges we must meet. … China has a huge stake in keeping its growth momentum in a sustainable way.”