Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Our leaders are steering us into the abyss

That anyone can still deny planetary warming when faced with such conditions is a tribute to human ingenuity.

by Mark Lynas

New Statesman (May 07 2007)

With a long career in politics already behind him, it must take a lot to shock Al Gore. But even this seasoned campaigner was left open-mouthed at the government of Canada's latest policy initiative on global warming. What Gore found especially "shocking", the former US vice-president told a TV interviewer, was the Conservative government's plan to meet its Kyoto targets - not now, but in 2025, thirteen years after the treaty expires in 2012. In the meantime, the country will pursue a "greenhouse gas intensity" strategy copied from the Bush administration, where emissions are supposed to reduce per unit of production, but can continue to grow overall as the economy expands. No wonder Gore angrily told an audience in Toronto on 28 April that the plan was "a complete and total fraud ... designed to mislead the Canadian people".

While no one will look to Canada for international leadership on climate change, neither could they turn to Australia. At the same time as it struggles to cope with a drought of unprecedented severity, John Howard's government continues to steer the country confidently towards the abyss. Australia is now expected to overshoot its own (unsigned) Kyoto target - to stabilise emissions at 108 per cent of 1990 levels by 2012 - by 2010. According to the Sydney-based Climate Institute, in the past three years alone Australian energy emissions have risen by the equivalent of more than five million new cars on the country's roads. Even while the earth bakes behind dried-up dams and farmers go bankrupt as their land turns to dust, Howard declares his determination to protect his sponsors in the coal industry - despite the fact that most of the emissions increase comes from the burning of coal in power stations. Thus, because of the extreme effects of global warming on rainfall, Australia is being forced to choose between coal and agriculture. Howard has chosen coal.

So who else can we look to for leadership? Not the US or Japan, whose heads of government met last week at Camp David. The headline issued by Reuters after the meeting said it all: "US and Japan commit to ease global warming, no targets". Reuters didn't have much to report, because the reality was that neither country committed to anything at all.

So too the EU, where rhetoric on climate change has certainly moved up a notch in recent months. But, as so often, rhetoric does not match reality. An April report from the Bankwatch environmental network reveals that of the European Investment Bank's ?112 billion handed out in loans over the past decade, more than half has gone to roads and air transport. The expected increase in carbon dioxide emissions from EIB-funded airport expansion alone equals the entire national emissions of New Zealand, Switzerland or Norway. And even while agreeing a target for an EU-wide twenty per cent emissions cut (on 1990 levels) by 2020, European negotiators have just signed an "open skies" deal with the US that will mean more flights across the Atlantic, and even cheaper fares. One step forward, two steps back.

The impacts of climate warming are also being felt in Europe. In Italy, water levels in the River Po and Lake Garda (the country's largest) have never been lower, and the country's environment minister has warned of a potential "state of emergency" if rain does not come before the summer. Drought is also gripping France, Germany and southern parts of the UK, where there has now been no substantial rain for six weeks.

Along with the drought has come heat. In England, this April was the hottest ever recorded, with countrywide temperatures more than three degrees higher than the long-term average. Records just keep tumbling: last July was the hottest month ever, while 2003 saw the highest daily temperature ever when the mercury reached 38.5 Celsius on 10 August, passing 100 Fahrenheit for the first time in history. The July heatwave of 2006 saw a near-return to those record-breaking temperatures, and some analysts are predicting that this summer could see temperatures crossing the 40 Celsius threshold (104 Fahrenheit).

That anyone can still deny planetary warming when faced with such conditions is a tribute to human ingenuity. If only this triumph of imagination had been put to better use - in helping to design an economy that did not eradicate its own life-support mechanisms - we might be facing a future in which temperatures might soon level out. Instead, the only way is up. I'm off to plant an orange tree in our backyard, and will keep you posted on its progress.

Bill Totten


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