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Kiribati residents on Tarawa Atoll being driven out by a high tide. The 90,000 citizens of Kiribati are concerned that global warming will wipe their nation off the map.
Photo: Courtesy of Arnoud Hagers

May 30, 2001
"Global Warming: Some Unexpected Consequences"
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  View video of high tide on Tarawa Atoll, Kiribati
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This is Roger Payne speaking to you from the Odyssey. I know it may seem strange, but even out here, 30 miles off the coast of New Guinea, and about as far from Washington D.C. as you can get and still be on this planet, the grim tidings from that city still make it through, even if a bit late. I am referring to the news of the decision by George W Bush to not have the United States sign the Kyoto treaty on global warming, something that must please the oil companies who fought against it throughout its genesis.

The Kyoto agreement allocates to each developed country a CO2 emission quota equal to the amount of CO2 that country was emitting in 1990. It requires full compliance with reductions in carbon emissions by 2008 (the year Mr. Bush becomes a lame duck) and its predicted effect would not be to reduce emissions to some accepted safe level but only to keep them below what they would otherwise reach without such an agreement. There is, of course, no rational justification for using the emissions levels of 1990 as the basis for emissions quotas except that that proved to be the only workable basis for gaining agreement from the developed nations during the nine long years of arduous negotiations required to create the agreement. (The principle of equity, of course, warrants that as time goes on and the agreement is refined that a better system for fixing quotas be adopted, based on human needs and sustainable totals rather than on historical accidents.)

So why did my President decided not to sign the Kyoto agreement? While speaking to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder at the Whitehouse he said: "Our economy has slowed down, we also have an energy crisis, and the idea of placing caps on CO2 does not make economic sense." He should have added: does not make economic sense if we continue to do things the way we have always done them rather than invest in developing new, sustainable, cleaner means of generating power from the wind, tides and sunlight, and thereby give America a leg up on that major world market of the future, and our own economy a major boost a few years down the line, and at the same time save our children from having to pay the staggering probable costs of the consequences of global warming.

Admittedly, our library aboard Odyssey is limited, but it is nevertheless remarkably comprehensive considering the space limitations that exist on any boat. Last night I did some research. First I went through the history books we have on board, but was unable to find what I was looking for. So I widened my search to two dictionaries of quotations, and three almanacs, but no luck there either. I then emailed a friend and had him go through his library. But he sent me back an email saying he too had not found what I was looking for. So, I am now prepared to say that based on this admittedly incomplete survey Mr. Bush's statement is the most naive and short-sighted reaction to an issue of major importance ever made by any major political figure.

I don't want Mr. Bush to feel he didn't have some competition for this distinction. There were several other major contenders for his prize. For example Margaret Thatcher who, during the Falklands war said: "It is exciting to have a real crisis on your hands when you have spent half your political life dealing with hum-drum issues like the Environment."

Or Ronald Reagan talking about old-growth forests in his home state of California: "If you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all."

Or Dixie Lee Ray, former governor of Washington State, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and other important posts who says "Can human beings really influence the overall climate-or stabilize it, or cause or prevent significant warming or cooling? I do not believe that we can or that we have done this. After all there are one million tons of air per capita for every person on earth."

Dixie Lee Ray was writing in 1992 and she had an excuse-a decade ago, the idea that the planet may be warming as a direct result of human activity was largely theoretical. But Mr. Bush has no such excuse. A United Nations sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has officially stated that the trend toward a warmer world has unquestionably begun and is human caused. What better, less biased source of information does Mr. Bush have that he has not told us about? And what was its conclusion? And with what arguments and data did it discredit the conclusions of the IPCC?

The mounting evidence is difficult for even the most ardent skeptics to dismiss: glaciers are disappearing; coral reefs are dying as the seas become too warm to sustain these heat sensitive animals. The Arctic permafrost is starting to melt in places; Icebergs the sizes of states are breaking off the Antarctic ice shelves; drought is becoming the norm in parts of Asia and Africa. Devastating weather patterns triggered by El Nino events are increasing in the Eastern Pacific. Lakes and rivers in colder climates are freezing later and thawing earlier each year. Migration patterns of several animal species are being disrupted as they shift their ranges to higher latitudes. These are distant early warnings. History teaches that prudent societies heed distant early warnings.

The IPCC predicts that temperatures will increase between 2.5 and 10.4 degrees F by the year 2100. That may not seem like much, but these predictions are more than 50% higher than they were just five years ago. And if we bear in mind that it took only a 9 degree Fahrenheit shift in temperature to end the last ice age, these figures appear a little more significant. Even more startling is that the increase in temperature is occurring at a rate that far outpaces anything the earth has seen in the last 100 million years. The ability of humans to adjust remains to be seen, but for wildlife and particularly for plant life, the changes appear to be devastating. Like it or not, we are involved in a major global experiment in planet heating. Prudence would cause the wise leader to invoke the precautionary principle, particularly at a time of tax revenue surpluses when he could, if he chose, afford a bit of precaution.

If the Bush presidency were to become a model of social reform, and he was to turn America into a utopia, with a chicken in every pot, zero unemployment, homelessness ended, universal medical care in place, some form of social security working well, family values restored, and every environmental issue wisely and judiciously solved, his stance on global warming would still be such a triumph of ignorance over knowledge, that that single issue would eclipse all his other accomplishments.

And so ends this day.

(c) 2001 Roger Payne

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