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The Cost of Bickering Over Global Warming

By Jonathan H. Esensten

Of the 3,411 voters who punched their butterfly ballots for Pat Buchanan in Palm Beach County on Election Day, some may have had a good reason to do so. It's Pat, of course, who talks about "securing America's borders," and the good folks in Florida are going to have a wave of border problems in the coming years. Not that Fidel is planning to send more desperate Cubans across the porous international border into Key West. He's too busy chuckling as Florida recovers from picking the 43rd president since our revolution--and the 10th since his--while threatening to send his own election monitors into Miami. No, the border problem in Key West and other low-lying places in Florida will be due to melting ice caps and rising oceans.

For the first time in 50 million years, the North Pole melted last August, according to a report in The New York Times. Now, it appears that the good citizens of Florida have sent two former oil company executives to the highest offices in the land. To top it all off, a U.N. summit on climate change broke up in The Hague over the weekend in the usual acrimony over who gets to pay for pricey pollution-control measures.

This confluence of events points to one conclusion: Global warming is happening, and no one wants to do anything about it. More accurately, no country wants to do anything about it if it loses any money in the bargain. The issue of fairness led to the most contentious debates at the meeting the just ended in the Netherlands.

The European Union, led by France, nixed a compromise deal on the grounds that it cut the U.S. and other big polluters too much slack. The U.S. plan would have adjusted greenhouse gas emission figures to take "sinks," forests and other growing plants that absorb carbon dioxide, into account. The failure of the talks may have come as a relief to big oil-producing countries that might have seen demand for oil drop if industrialized countries were forced into investing in alternate energy sources. Indeed, as recently as September, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and other members of Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries were pressing for compensation in case an anti-global warming deal hurt oil sales.

Unfortunately, the deal-breakers squaring off on opposite sides of the North Atlantic are among the least affected by the possibility of rising temperatures and swelling seas. According to projections by the United Nations, Bangladesh could lose up to 16 percent of its land area to the Indian Ocean. Semi-arid parts of North Africa and Southern Europe could become deserts. But agriculture in Northern Europe and the North Great Plains would most likely boom in the event of warming--a longer growing season coupled with easier shopping due to less ice in the Great Lakes means the northern latitudes have less to worry about. The deal, in the end, succumbed to parochial interests of the great nations.

But what about Miami? At 15 feet above sea level, most of the city should be safe even in the worst-case scenario of a three-foot rise in water level over the next hundred years. Cambridge would also survive such a rise. In the meantime, I hope the U.S. and E.U. can come to some understanding about the need for a meaningful deal. This is the world we're talking about here, and it wouldn't be fair to future generations of Harvard students if rising waters forced Eliot House and Winthrop House to relocate to the Quad.

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