Twelve years after the industrialized nations agreed, under the United Nation-sanctioned Kyoto Protocol, to reduce man-made emissions that threatened to destabilize the planet’s climate, greenhouse gas emissions and global warming continue to grow apace, exposing the Earth, especially the poor, to potential calamity, according to environmental scientists and policy-watchers.
“I wish I could be more positive about it (Kyoto),” said Dan Kammen, member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the body created by the UN to assess climate change. “Despite lots of conversations, so far, we have not been very successful at meaningful action on climate protection.
“There has been progress in reaching mild goals. The problem is that there have not been significant global actions that recognize individual innovations and scale those up.”
Under the UN mandate, which was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, 37 industrialized countries and the European Union agreed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by an average of 5 percent of 1990 levels between 1998 and 2012.
A build-up of methane and other harmful gases could cause global temperatures to rise by almost 6 degrees centigrade by 2100 if no action is taken, the IPCC warned. But even a fast-approaching 2-degree C temperature increase could prove catastrophic, they say.
“We’re playing Russian roulette,” said Kammen, a professor of energy and resources, public policy and nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “Models are not good at forecasting. So every bit of increase over 2 degrees increases the likelihood of surprising events that we could not forecast.”
According to Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, global warming is already wreaking havoc. “We’re seeing extreme weather events—cyclones, tsunamis, tropical storms, etc.—all over the world,” he said.
“Just look at the U.S. We’ve had some of the most extensive droughts in our history, wildfires throughout the country, Hurricane Sandy, which not only caused extensive damage in New York and New Jersey, but also travelled down into the Caribbean and swept over Haiti, which is still trying to recover from the earthquake.” Meyer said.
Melting glaciers and ice caps are also causing the sea level to rise, threatening to flood small island states and coastline communities, according to environmental scientists who say extreme weather threatens the viability of farming, particularly in poorer countries.
But threats of dire consequences were not embraced by participants in recently concluded international talks to advance the Kyoto Protocol, said Meyer, who attended the meeting. “Leaders are more concerned about the short-term impacts on trade and their economies; they’re not really thinking about our children and grandchildren and what this will mean for them,” he said.
The world’s leading industrialized nations, including the U.S. and China, the world’s largest polluters, contend that the Kyoto mandate is unfair and ineffective—it only addresses 15 percent of global emissions—because it doesn’t hold fast-developing and heavily-polluting nations such as China, India and Brazil to the same emission standards.
“But we can’t wait eight years just twiddling our thumbs,” Meyer said. “We need to take action now in the meantime, emission of greenhouse gases and other emissions continue to soar through the roof.”
Outside the protocol, the U.S. is taking some mitigating steps. President Obama, who pushed for green energy innovation in 2009 stimulus, claims renewable electricity production has doubled.
He also pushed up fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, mandating average fuel efficiency of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. And regional climate change assessments, which were halted by Bush, have been resumed.
Some states are acting independently. Maryland, for example has done a lot in this regard.
“Because we have so much coastline we are vulnerable to increases in sea level,” said Tad Aburn, director of the Air and Radiation Management Administration for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The state has also enacted the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act of 2009, calling for a plan to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 25 percent below 2006 levels by 2020. The draft plan is to be completed this month.
In 2007, the state enacted a law to reduce emissions from cars. And the EmPOWER Maryland program provides incentives to people and businesses to decrease consumption of energy by 15 percent by the year 2015.
Aburn said, however, that Maryland’s efforts need to be supported at the national level.
“We’d like to see an aggressive federal program,” he said. “One of the realities of climate change is that the earlier you take action the more effective your efforts will be. Delay is something we worry about.”
Scientists and environmental activists worry that progress on climate change mitigation by the U.S. faces skeptics who contend that climate change, if it exists, is not caused by man-made emissions.
“The same forces that helped defeat national climate change legislation in the Senate are targeting states to roll back their standards,” Meyers said, singling out the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, coal and fossil fuel industries and the Koch Brothers.
Meanwhile, anti-global warming propaganda continues to surface. Following Superstorm Sandy, real estate mogul Donald Trump declared on his Twitter page: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
But confusion about the facts is eroding, Meyers said. “As we see more and more extreme weather events, more and more Americans are connecting the dots,” and as understanding increases, maybe citizens will “raise public pressure on these politicians” to effect meaningful policy.