hope Earth never gets attacked by flesh-eating Martians. By the time
the governments of the world mounted a counter-attack, we'd all be getting
force-bred in Martian factory farms, wondering why the fat kids keep
getting dragged away.
I wouldn't bet on the Independence Day scenario of instant global
solidarity and quick, coordinated action. Arab pilots won't be hugging
Israeli pilots before doing intergalactic battle. More likely humanity's
response would resemble the climate-change (in)action movie, The
Day After Tomorrow. The Martians could be halfway done vaporizing
world capitals in alphabetical order, and the Saudi U.N. rep would raise
his hand and suggest we offer the green guys development rights in the
Caspian. The U.S. rep would balk at this, and instead threaten sanctions
against the Martians. The back and forth would go on until New York
disappeared with a powerful zap from above.
Martians for climate change—which is essentially what Roland Emmerich,
who made both Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow,
did—and you have a pretty good picture of reality, 2005. Consider the
early as 1898, Swedish scientists had published papers describing how
burning fossil fuels could lead to a greenhouse effect. In 1955, American
scientist Charles Keeling discovered that carbon dioxide levels in the
atmosphere were up 10 percent since the Industrial Revolution and rising
(the number is now 30 percent and rising faster). More than three decades
of alarm bells went off in university research centers before global
warming finally broke into the public discussion in the late 80s. When
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced without much
qualification in 1995 that warming was well underway and posed a severe
short- and medium-term threat, it took another two years to convene
the conference that resulted in the Kyoto protocol, the first binding
went into effect last Wednesday.
Kyoto's drafting and last week, seven years passed. Not just any seven
years, but seven of the hottest years on record, filled with more record-breaking
heat waves, floods and droughts than can be listed here.
this time—as we got used to fucked-up weather and tried to avoid pondering
its implications—Kyoto's timid goals became even more useless than they
were in 1997. At the time of Kyoto's drafting, climate scientists warned
that it would take emissions cuts of, at the very least, 20 percent
below 1990 levels to make a meaningful dent in the warming trend. Kyoto
called for six to 12 percent.
the 20 percent figure widely panned as impractical, and with the fossil-fuel
lobby still fighting a shockingly effective rear-guard battle against
science, climate warriors were forced to defend the treaty as a necessary
first step, a symbol of the world's ability and resolve to act. It was
assumed that the early targets would be met and built upon with American
leadership. Al Gore was expected to assume the presidency in 2000. There
was hope. Putting the treaty into effect in 1997 would have been something
anymore. Although global greenhouse emissions continued to soar after
1997, Kyoto's goals are the same ones announced seven years ago. Many
of the treaty's most important and vigorous supporters, such as Japan,
are unlikely to meet even these. As for American leadership, not only
does the U.S. remain outside the treaty, we somehow ended up with a
White House that considers coal an alternative fuel.
proper response to Kyoto's much-belated first breath is not celebration,
but protest. Loud, angry, desperate protest. The 35 Greenpeace activists
who last week shut down the floor of the International Petroleum Exchange
in London have the right idea. Next month the antiwar movement will
mark the second anniversary of the Iraq invasion with demonstrations
around the world. Greens should be doing the same to mark Kyoto's partial-birth
treaty's kick-in represents no new forward momentum at all. What tipped
the scales was Russia's reluctant recognition, after years of EU arm-twisting,
that its rump industrial base could be translated into profit under
the Kyoto's carbon credit scheme (a loophole that allows rich countries
to buy their way out of their target cuts). The Russians have been vocal
about wishing they were still strong enough to spit at the treaty like
their soul brothers in the White House. One Kremlin economist even called
Kyoto an "economic Auschwitz."
raises the question of what Hitler would have thought about Earth's
slow-motion heat holocaust. No doubt he would have been surprised to
see black-soil rich Ukraine, the Third Reich's would-be breadbasket,
forced to import wheat after 2003's record-breaking late-summer heat-wave.
The heat hit more than just Ukrainian wheat, of course: 35,000 people
died in eight European countries, with shrunken harvests reported in
every nation between France and Russia.
result was the second straight year in which the world harvest failed
to match demand. In 2002, world agricultural output fell 89 million
tons below consumption; in 2003, that number grew to 94 million tons,
or five percent of what the earth's growing population consumed. To
make up the shortfall, global reserve stocks were tapped. Although last
year's harvest saw a rebound, rising consumption ate it all up, leaving
reserves at their lowest point in 30 years.
Lester R. Brown explains in Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security
Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures
(just out on W.W. Norton), we'd better reacquaint ourselves with the
idea of scarcity. After 50 years of steadily increasing food production,
the trend has stopped and is now reversing. Overdevelopment, overpopulation
and global warming are conspiring to make the 21st century one in which
water and grain join oil as a source of conflict.
founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, summarizes a few
new studies that deserve our focused attention. The first, conducted
by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, found that for every one-degree
Celsius rise in temperature, rice harvests fall by 10 percent. This
conclusion is supported by another study by the International Rice Research
study, conducted by U.S. researchers David Lobell and Gregory Asner,
found that the same rise in temperature results in a 17 percent drop
in corn and soybean yields.
do some basic math. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts
that average temperatures will rise between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius
in the 21st century; this on top of last century's roughly one-degree
rise. Ignoring trend lines that show the upper end of this estimate
as becoming more likely, let's predict a rise of three degrees. That
translates to a drop in the global rice harvest of 30 percent; for corn
and soybean harvests, 51 percent. Throw in the effects of falling water
tables and melting ice cover—which will lower and possibly kill major
rivers now used for irrigation and drinking—and it doesn't take Kenny
Kingston to imagine the havoc climate change will wreak on international
politics in the coming decades.
this picture comes into sharper focus, Kyoto returns from the dead after
seven wasted years, with its tiny balls missing. Who knew rearranging
a few deck chairs could take so long?