On Sunday, as the clanging of the radiators shook Harvard students from their sleep with the announcement that another brutally cold New England winter had arrived, a tempest of mythical proportions raged across the pond. For three days, the Brits were forced to ride out a full-force gale that produced tornadoes, blizzards, heavy flooding and dangerously fierce winds. The storm, labeled by experts as the worst in the last quarter-century, wreaked havoc with the country's transportation systems and caused at least fifteen deaths.
Had such meteorological events occurred within the context of a Shakespearean play or a Greek drama, the bizarre weather in Britain--concurrent with unusually severe typhoons in Taiwan, floods in Bangladesh, fires in Italy and droughts in Burundi and Iran--they would have stood as an omen portending the death of a king or the end of an empire. Humans have long interpreted the wrath of the (literal) heavens as punishment for their earthly transgressions. If our modern, secular selves were to sit up and take notice of ten thousand years of weather interpretation, what evil deed might be to blame?
According to a new report released last week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a highly respected group of international scientists assembled by the United Nations Environment Programme, that indeed is the now-undeniable human contribution to and causation of global warming. The panel, (which issued two prior assessments in 1995 and 1990), made a dramatic shift from their earlier, more conservative stance as a result of five years of intensive research compiled by teams around the world. This report placed the onus for the trend squarely upon the shoulders of a society whose reckless burning of fossil fuels has altered the earth's atmosphere and contributed substantially to the observed warming over the last 50 years.
Most disturbing is the reports conclusion that the upper range of warming over the next 100 years could, in a worst-case-scenario, raise the average global temperature 11 degrees Fahrenheit; and no matter what precautions we endeavor to undertake, average temperatures will rise by at least three degrees in that time period. In contrast, current temperatures are only nine degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they were at the end of the last Ice Age. These findings are unique in that they represent the closest the scientific community has ever come to a consensus on the issue of global warming; previous data to date has been conflicting and inconclusive.
The hope for environmental enthusiasts is that this concrete proof of the dangers of human pollution with regard for the atmosphere will provide the impetus for measurable progress at this months international summit on global climate control. Most of the countries of the world will be represented at the Hague in a few weeks when details of the 1997 Kyoto Protocola treaty which sets specific goals for the reduction of the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will ostensibly be resolved. The treaty, which was largely negotiated by Vice President Al Gore 69 (insert joke about Gore being the first to identify the phenomenon of global warming here) has been signed by more than 150 countries. Unfortunately, the treaty has yet to be ratified by any industrialized nation, including the United States. Without ratification, the document is largely symbolic and wholly ineffective.
The fault for this inaction on the part of the United States and other developed countries lies with an inability to take the concept of global warming seriously, in combination with an intense desire to protect recent economic successes. As we move farther away in time from the moment when holes in the ozone layer first were noticed, life continues to progress as usual and we wonder what the big fuss was about; without palpable catastrophe, the theory begins to seem far-fetched and totally passe. The once spell-bounding specter of spreading deserts, of global famine, of expensive real estate on the Florida panhandle disappearing beneath the Atlantic as unforgiving waters reclaim Vero Beach, no longer invokes a powerful reaction of shock and dismay. Why agree to impose on ourselves expensive pollution controls that will slow production, simply for the sake of preventing something that seems more fantasy than reality?
All of this, combined with a previous lack of consensus among members of the scientific community about whether there is a problem and what we might do about it if there was, seems to indicate that the theory of global warming--to use an inexcusably terrible pun--is washed up. This is a false, misleading, and terribly dangerous conclusion for the nation, and the world, to draw; and a fatal one should we choose it as the determinant of our future. The simple truth is this report provides us with the documented, undeniable proof that our behavior has significantly impacted worldwide climate trends, and that the alteration of those trends has in turn resulted in shrinking glaciers, thinning polar sea ice, retreating snow packs, warmer average global temperatures and disturbances in the flow of water within the oceans. Whether or not one feels that these changes wont be as bad as predicted, or wont cause problems as quickly as suggested, it is irresponsible--and no longer possible--to ignore the problem out-of-hand.
Consequently, it is imperative that we take concrete steps towards the reduction of our greenhouse gas production. Unfortunately, tangible successes for control of these substances in the United States to date have come exclusively from the private sector, where individual companies and corporations have taken it upon themselves to explore new alternatives. In the past year, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Dow Chemical, IBM and Johnson & Johnson have all made (and followed through with) pledges to cut their production of carbon dioxide; recently, Du Pont, Shell and others joined in a voluntary plan to reduce the wasteful use of energy and produce cleaner products. And just last week, BP and Ford donated $20 million to Princeton University to develop a technique called carbon sequestration, which could potentially stow carbon emissions safely within the earth.
These efforts represent an important component in the battle against global warming, but widespread reductions in the overall production of dangerous pollutants cannot be made without the statutory support of the federal government. It is high time for our elected officials to cease their practice of employing global warming as a part of their environment-friendly rhetoric during campaign season, and then completely ignoring it when the time comes for legislation on the subject to be drafted for fear, real or imagined, of losing financial support from companies who pollute. I have no doubt that Al Gore embraces global warming as an important issue, nor do I think that George Bush, if confronted with the evidence he claims to need, would truly wish to ignore the danger signs and destroy his brothers chances for reelection by allowing Florida to sink beneath the waves. Such platitudes, however, will remain as empty statements if there no legislative action taken in the next few months on their behalf. In the end, it will be up to whoever is elected on Tuesday--to the Presidency as well as to Congress--to bear the responsibility of ensuring that the United States is a key supporter and ratifier of the Kyoto Protocol, and not to let politics as usual get in the way of everyone's future.
Alixandra E. Smith '02 is a government concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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