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Saturday, Sept. 10, 2005

From Kyoto to New Orleans

LOS ANGELES -- Beneath the endlessly horrific details surrounding the hurricane that swamped parts of New Orleans and the southeast United States lurks a monster question. Just how angry -- really -- is Mother Nature over the irreverent, careless way we humans and our energy-hungry machines have been manhandling our precious, precariously balanced planet?

The way this question is put may seem anthropomorphically fanciful, but the issue of worldwide warming has been on the global table top long enough to know that it's high time we did something about it. Most people understand that many scientists believe the issue to be nothing less than dire.

It is also a fact that many eminent scientific seers directly connect the worldwide warming phenomenon with certain kinds of bad weather news -- to wit, the apparently growing severity of "natural" catastrophes.

Consider, for example, an alarming recent paper in New Scientist, one of the world's most respected professional journals. In it, Judith Marquand of Oxford University and Sergei Kirpotin of Tomsk State University in western Siberia report their finding of an astonishing degree of global warming in Siberia eating away at the permafrost over a land mass roughly equivalent to the expanse of France and Germany.

For the first time since the last ice age (about 11,000 years ago) "permafrost," as it is called, covering this entire sub-Arctic area of Siberia, is starting to melt. Underneath the frost is vast subterranean goo (peat bog) that contains noxious methane, heretofore trapped beneath the ice. Once in the atmosphere, substantial quantities of this greenhouse gas will add to the Earth's warming.

Similarly, scientists believe that the oceanic warming, however slow but steady, contributes to the increasing ferocity of severe atmospheric meltdowns, such as hurricanes. Future environmental disasters are in prospect. MIT climatologist Kerry Emanuel wrote a few weeks ago in the internationally respected journal Nature, "My results suggest that future warming may lead to an upward trend in tropical cyclone destructive potential and -- taking into account an increasing coastal population -- a substantial increase in hurricane-related losses in the 21st century."

Right now, America's attention is focused, understandably, on the crisis of the moment. This calamity has become problem No. 1 for President George Bush. In the end we may find that the human and economic damage from hurricane Katrina will exceed that from Sept. 11, 2001.

Life offers many lessons for us all; none of us is perfect, and the most important lessons tend to be the most surprising ones. A few years ago the Bush administration preemptively dropped out of participation in the greenhouse-emission-reduction protocol named after one of the world's most beautiful cities -- Kyoto. The treaty had been negotiated thanks to the determined and skilled orchestration of one of America's most important allies -- Japan. To say that the Bush administration dumped Kyoto unceremoniously would be to insult the word unceremonious. The White House acted as if the treaty had been put together in a nasty conspiracy of communists working with al-Qaida agents. The snarling disdain was insulting to many of our best friends who favored the Kyoto approach.

Global warming is a phenomenally important issue that can no longer be denied unless you are in some kind of severe psychotic state of transcendental delusion. To be sure, the Kyoto emissions-reduction approach was at best an imperfect blueprint, but it was better than nothing. But nothing was all that Washington offered in response until this June, when it and some of the other biggest polluters put out a new plan to cut greenhouse emissions.

There's nothing wrong with alternative proposals, whether to cool global warming or to the reform the United Nations, so long as they are presented with mature intent, a sense of respect for the views of others, and modesty about one's own prescience and brilliance.

The world is clearly embarked on a worrisome environmental course that will not and cannot be righted overnight. The evil-hurricane parable -- of trouble that crosses over many national boundaries and is fueled from below by a heated-up ocean --- illustrates what is at stake. The problem is enormous and international. Note how the U.S. government is very hard pressed to cope with tragic destruction just within its own southeastern arena. Alone, it has no hope at all of coping with the larger environmental problems that are sure to plague the globe in the future. For that, the U.S. will need many committed partners and must demonstrate uncharacteristic humility and self-effacing cooperation. For against a very violent and angry Mother Nature, even the mightiest superpower is little more than a relative peanut.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.
Copyright 2005 Tom Plate

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