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In September, the area of Arctic sea ice shrank to a record low, prompting glaciologists to conclude

by Elizabeth Kolbert
Issue of 2005-12-12
Posted 2005-12-05

The Kilinailau Islands—also known as the Tulun Islands, or the Carteret Atoll—which lie four hundred miles from the coast of Papua New Guinea, are tiny, low, and impoverished. Their fate, thanks to global warming, has long been a foregone conclusion. In 1995, most of the shoreline of Piul and Huene washed away, and the island of Iolasa was cut in half by the sea. Saltwater intrusion has now reached the point where islanders can no longer grow breadfruit, and have to rely on emergency food aid. Last month, Reuters reported that the decision had finally been made to give up. The islands’ two thousand residents are being relocated, at the expense of the Papua New Guinean government, to the slightly higher ground of Bougainville Island, some sixty miles to the southwest.

The atoll’s evacuation fits into a pattern of grim, if unsurprising, news. In September, the area of Arctic sea ice shrank to a record low, prompting glaciologists to conclude that the ice had entered a state of “accelerating, long-term decline,” and to warn that at the current rate of loss the Arctic Ocean would be ice-free in summer “well before the end of this century.” At about the same time, a team of researchers at the University of Colorado announced that the extent of surface melt on the Greenland ice sheet had reached a new high, and a second team of researchers, at Georgia Tech, reported that the number of Category 4 and Category 5 hurricanes had nearly doubled in the past three decades. Global temperatures, meanwhile, continued their steady upward climb; 2005 is on track to be the hottest year since record-keeping began, in the late eighteen-hundreds. (Eight of the ten hottest years on record have occurred since 1996.)

These events are the all too relevant backdrop for the current round of international climate talks taking place in Montreal. The talks are the first since the Kyoto Protocol entered into force, this past February. Technically, the United States, not being a party to the protocol, will be excluded from many of the sessions in Montreal. But, by virtue of its contribution to climate change—Americans produce nearly a quarter of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions—it will still have a great deal of influence on what does, and does not, get accomplished there.

When the Bush Administration’s policy on climate change was first articulated by the President, in early 2002, critics described it as a “total charade,” a characterization that, if anything, has come to seem too generous. Stripped down to its essentials, the Administration’s position is that global warming is a problem that either will solve itself or won’t. The White House has consistently opposed taxes or regulations or mandatory caps to reduce, or even just stabilize, greenhouse-gas emissions, advocating instead a purely voluntary approach, under which companies and individuals can choose to cut their CO2 production—that is, if they feel like it. (At the G-8 summit this summer, the President embarrassed British Prime Minister Tony Blair by refusing to accede even to minor modifications in this position.) In Montreal, the Administration’s chief climate negotiator, Harlan Watson, has been touting the efficacy of the voluntary approach, pointing out that between 2000 and 2003 the United States’ carbon-dioxide emissions dropped by .8 per cent. Conveniently left out is the fact that since 2003 they have shot back up again. According to the latest government figures, the country’s CO2 emissions are now three per cent higher than they were three years ago. (The brief dip, it should be noted, had nothing to do with government policy; it was entirely a function of the downturn in the economy.)

Much of the Montreal talks will be taken up with the nitty-gritty of implementing Kyoto—how, for example, to structure the “clean development mechanism,” under which industrialized countries can receive credit for financing emissions-reducing projects in developing ones. Such details are clearly important if the protocol is to have an impact. But Kyoto is, and has always been understood as, a first step, and a baby step at that. As President Bush likes to point out, the protocol imposes no restrictions on countries like China and India, whose emissions are growing rapidly. (China is expected to overtake the United States as the world’s largest carbon emitter sometime around 2025.) Kyoto, moreover, is a temporary measure; it lapses in 2012, at which point it will need to be replaced by something much more ambitious. The protocol took almost three years to negotiate and seven years to ratify; at that rate, work on its successor should have begun back in 2002. Many countries are pressing for post-Kyoto talks to commence immediately. In characteristic fashion, the Bush Administration is refusing to participate. “The United States seeks to focus attention on progress . . . rather than to detour positive approaches toward a new round of negotiations” is how Watson put it shortly after arriving in Montreal last week.

America’s failure to ratify Kyoto is widely viewed as a scandal. The Administration’s effort to block a post-Kyoto agreement has received less attention, but is every bit as dangerous. Without the participation of the United States, no meaningful agreement can be drafted for the post-2012 period, and the world will have missed what may well be its last opportunity to alter course. “If we don’t get a serious program in place for the long term in this post-Kyoto phase, we will simply not make it,” Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton, told reporters last month. “We will be crossing limits which will basically produce impacts that are unacceptable.” Such is the nature of global warming that the problem is always further along than it seems. The kinds of changes that are now becoming evident—the rise in sea levels, the thawing of permafrost, the acidification of the oceans, the acceleration of ice streams—mean that much larger changes are rapidly approaching. To continue to delay is not to put off catastrophe but, rather, to rush toward it.

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