Defying Mark Twain, World Seeks to Fix Weather
OSLO -- "Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it," according to a complaint widely attributed to Mark Twain.
But now the quip faces its strongest test after dire scientific and economic warnings about the risks of failing to address ever more extreme weather blamed on global warming.
A condition to get from talk to action, many experts say, is for Washington to join almost all its industrial allies in capping greenhouse gas emissions. That in turn would set an example to developing nations, led by China and India.
"The United States is the number one emitter and is increasing its emissions of carbon dioxide," European Commissioner Stavros Dimas told Reuters. "We need their participation."
"Otherwise other countries, especially emerging economies, find it a rather easy argument to say: 'If the United States, the biggest emitter, is not moving, then why us?'" he said.
President George W. Bush says climate change is a "serious challenge" but reckons caps would harm the economy. He is instead investing heavily in new technologies such as hydrogen and biofuels, hoping breakthroughs will solve the problem.
But the pressure for stronger global action is growing after a twin dose of science and economics.
In a report in Paris on Friday, the world's top climate scientists blamed mankind for global warming and warned of sharp temperature rises bringing droughts, floods, heatwaves and a rise in sea levels set to last more than 1,000 years.
And last October, a British-sponsored report by former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern, the broadest look to date at the economics of climate change, concluded it was far cheaper to act now than to sit back and do nothing.
The Stern Review said it would cost only about one percent of annual global output to stabilise greenhouse gases against a devastating 5-20 percent in lost output by ignoring the problem.
But will governments be shocked into acting?
Friday's scientific report brought pious vows by many governments to work out a new global deal to replace the U.N.'s Kyoto Protocol on curbing emissions, mainly from burning fossil fuels in power plants, factories and cars.
Kyoto obliges 35 countries to cut emissions to 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-12 and was partly spurred by the U.N. climate panel's 1995 conclusion that the "balance of evidence" suggested that humans were affecting the climate.
"There's a window of opportunity this year and perhaps next to get negotiations going on a post-2012 (deal)" to widen Kyoto, said Yvo de Boer, head of the U.N.'s Climate Change Secretariat.
He said all rich nations should agree to deep cuts.
A big problem is that countries going it alone and axing emissions risk a double suffering under Stern's sums -- both the small costs of curbing fossil fuel use and the far bigger damage if other nations fail to follow suit.
And many Kyoto countries are way off target because, when it comes down to imposing curbs, governments often do their best to ease the impact for industries and consumers.
Among Kyoto backers, for instance, Spain, Portugal, Canada, Greece, Ireland, New Zealand and Liechtenstein have all recorded bigger jumps in carbon dioxide emissions from 1990 to 2004 than the 16 percent U.S. surge. Bush pulled out of Kyoto in 2001.
Trying to break the deadlock, the EU Commission earlier this month proposed unilateral EU cuts of 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, or 30 percent if other nations go along.
Dimas said he was optimistic of a U.S. shift amid pressure from U.S. states such as California, businesses and Democrats who control both houses of Congress over Bush's Republicans.
"I always believe what Winston Churchill said: 'Americans always do the right thing -- but only after exhausting all other options'," he said.
The Bush administration said it welcomed Friday's report but called for a "global discussion" of the issue. "The president's policies are working," said Sharon Hays, who led the U.S. delegation to the climate panel in Paris.
Vicki Arroyo, director of policy analysis at the Pew Center, a Washington think-tank, said some past climate reports failed to be the wake-up call many predicted, such as a 2004 study showing a rapid melt of the Arctic ice that threatens indigenous peoples and polar bears.
"But it's only a matter of time," she predicted, before the United States sets caps. "And if we act, others will follow."