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Thursday, June 10, 2004

OUR PLANET EARTH

Kicking up a storm over climate change


For those who cannot decide whether to see "The Day After Tomorrow," I sympathize. This recent Hollywood thriller that offers an apocalyptic portrayal of global climate change has me at odds with myself. I am torn between the desire to wallow in mindless hyperbole, and the fear of seeing an audience depart even more ignorant about climate change than before they entered.

Still, my bruised and battered optimism remains intact -- maybe the movie and other recent events will provoke a "perfect storm" that will jolt America awake to the stark realities of fossil-fuel addiction. ("The Perfect Storm," a book by Sebastian Junger and later made into a movie, tells the true story of several weather systems that converged over the North Atlantic in October 1991, creating a huge storm.)

Why the United States? Because, as the dominant economic and political superpower it must lead, or by default derail, any comprehensive global effort to cut the mushrooming greenhouse gases that generate warming and, in turn, climate change. To date, it has failed abysmally to lead.

Here are some numbers: According to the June issue of National Geographic, in 2002 the United States consumed more than 7.1 billion barrels of oil -- over 1 billion more than Germany, Russia, China and Japan combined.

Fortuitously, other events this spring, besides a movie, may well spur Americans to act on climate change. I have some interesting thoughts on this involving automobile insurance, but more on that later.

Recently, Iraq has been an eye-opener for Americans, forcing even the most hegemonic to recognize that an American presence in the Middle East could cost far too many lives and imperil global stability.

At home, too, Americans are paying a price. Increasing demand for oil and the uncertainties of war have been pushing gas prices to record levels (well over $2 a gallon). When terrorists attacked and killed oil company employees in Saudi Arabia last month, oil prices jumped to over $40 a barrel due to fears of instability in the world's biggest oil exporter. One business source estimates that if the cost of oil remains at this level, U.S. gross domestic product could drop 0.5 percent a year, or $50 billion.

Even the unthinkable is being thought: An op-ed piece in The New York Times recently touted the virtues of a 50-cent-per-gallon hike in gasoline taxes as a way to cut U.S. oil consumption.

Just last week, the Environmental News Service (ENS) reported on a recent poll by the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies that found 84 percent of Americans will factor in the environment when they vote for a president in November; 35 percent said the environment would be a "major factor."

"This poll underscores that Americans are concerned about the environment, and they want the federal government to take action to protect it," Gustave Speth, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, told ENS.

All these events have crystallized my own thinking about climate-change prevention, a la car insurance.

After driving for more than 30 years, I had never had an accident. Even so, I had never thought of driving without insurance, and this sense of precaution applies to my thoughts on global warming and climate change as well.

Yes, the science is imperfect and no one knows exactly how much climate change will occur in the future. Nevertheless, scientists do know that warming is underway, and they do know that warming drives climate change. They also know that the real costs of climate disruption are already mounting dramatically due to crop failures, flooding, drought, cold spells and heat waves.

We know, too, that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere -- a contributor to warming, has increased steadily as our burning of fossil fuels has escalated. In short, the energy that drives our burgeoning global economy creates the carbon emissions that play a major role in altering our climate.

Like driving without insurance, adherence to this status quo is patently irrational. As one scientist notes, massive volcanic eruptions could spew tons of dust into the atmosphere, causing cooling, and we might be fine after all. The overwhelming majority of scientists agree, however, that we are losing our gamble with our atmosphere.

The odds finally caught up with me, too, last month, on a dry, straight road, on a beautiful spring day. It was a low-speed crash so no one was hurt, and the other guy was able to drive away, but I wasn't so lucky. My car is still in the shop and the costs are mounting. Fortunately, I had insurance, and I recommend it highly.

Unfortunately, there will be no indemnity for those countries victimized by reckless and self-absorbed policymaking in Washington. The costs of climate disruption will be borne by every nation, most painfully by those least able to pay.

Stephen Hesse can be contacted at stevehesse@hotmail.com


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