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Five Harvard students are giving up Thanksgiving at home this month to help fight global warming. We, along with Diana R. Movius '03 and law school students Jeff M. Baran and Sierra B. Weaver, will be participating in the U.S. Student Climate Summit in The Hague, Netherlands, where we will represent the students' voice in the current round of international climate negotiations. Here's why:
1. The global warming debate is over. The world is warming, and humans are responsible. Human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels, has "contributed substantially to the observed warming over the last 50 years." So concludes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the premiere international body of climate experts, in a draft of their Third Assessment Report set to be released early next year. The debate now revolves around two questions: How quickly will this warming take place, and what will the effects of this warming be? Both are valid scientific questions and currently the subjects of additional research, but they are not reasons for delaying action to slow global warming. Moreover, the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the United States and 185 other nations ratified, is designed to allow countries to weaken or strengthen the treaty in response to new scientific developments.
2. America's leadership now is crucial. Given that the U.S., which makes up less than 5 percent of the worlds population, contributes 25 percent of the global carbon emissions, the Kyoto Protocol (an agreement negotiated by 160 countries in 1997 to control emissions of the gases that cause global warming) will not go into effect without ratification by the U.S. Senate. To enter into force, the Kyoto Protocol requires ratification by 55 parties to the convention, which together were responsible for at least 55 percent of the world's total carbon dioxide emissions in 1990. And while the cooperation of both the developed and developing countries is necessary for any treaty to be truly effective in reversing the trend of global climate change, it isn't unreasonable for the developed world, especially the U.S., to take the lead in addressing this global challenge because the U.S. and other developed countries are primarily responsible for causing the problem.
3. The fate of the global warming treaty will be decided in The Hague. The U.S. has the opportunity to demonstrate this critical leadership at the Conference of the Parties taking place right now in The Hague, Netherlands. The purpose of this two-week meeting is to establish the rules for implementing the three mechanisms defined by the Kyoto Protocol to help industrialized nations meet their reduction targets: emissions trading, joint implementation and the clean development mechanism. First of all, an emissions trading regime will allow industrialized countries to pool their efforts, buying and selling emissions credits amongst themselves. Secondly, joint implementation projects will recognize efforts to finance emission-reduction projects in other industrialized countries. Lastly, a clean development mechanism will provide credit for financing emissions-reducing or emissions-avoiding projects in developing countries. However, there is much potential for loopholes in these mechanisms that would render the protocol ineffective in combating global climate change.
The target for the U.S. set at Kyoto was to reduce America's greenhouse gas emissions to seven percent below their 1990 levels, or 17 percent below today's emissions levels. However, our strategy for achieving these reductions has focused predominantly on taking action outside U.S. borders instead of improving our domestic energy efficiency or promoting the use of energy sources other than fossil fuels. As such, the U.S. is not willing to commit itself to a real solution to the problem.
4. The U.S. can meet its reduction target without hurting the economy. A recent study by the Tellus Institute, a non-profit research and consulting organization, shows that the U.S. can achieve its emissions target entirely or largely through domestic actions by increasing energy efficiency, accelerating the adoption of renewable energy technologies, and shifting to less carbon-intensive fossil fuels.
The report also argues convincingly that these policies would benefit the U.S. even if global climate change and greenhouse gas emissions were not of concern. In addition to the lower emissions, a reduced reliance on oil imports would improve America's trade balance and reduce our vulnerability to supply constraints and oil price shocks. Also, U.S. industries that produce efficient and clean technologies to meet climate policy goals would be poised to capture a large share of the rapidly growing world markets for these technologies. And cutting fossil fuel use would reduce air pollutants, thereby improving public health and reducing damage to crops, forests, buildings and water resources.
What happens at The Hague will determine the course of human history. The global warming issue is not only about changes in weather patterns; it is also about equity and addressing the growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots, who are at the greatest threat from climate change. Ratifying the Kyoto Protocol is a necessary and important step in the right direction towards addressing the real threat of global warming. When we go to The Hague, we will be asking the U.S. to show the courage and leadership necessary to make this first step a success.
Maggie Y. Loo '01 is an environmental science and public policy concentrator in Mather House. Gabrielle B. Dreyfus '01 is an earth and planetary sciences concentrator in Eliot House.
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