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Global warming is a serious threat to all

When one hears the phrases "global warming" and "greenhouse gases," one may picture liberal tree-huggers making outlandish claims about melting ice caps and submerged cities. President Bush apparently does, and so do an awful lot of politicians and businessmen who, coincidentally, stand to profit from lax pollution standards. Yet there is a growing scientific consensus that global warming is real, it is caused by human activity rather than ongoing natural cycles, and its consequences are going to be devastating. A study released last month by a United Nations panel found that the earth's average temperature has risen over the past century by one degree Fahrenheit a huge leap in global climate terms the only such rise in at least the past 1,000 years, according to tree rings and other prehistoric records, and quite possibly the biggest in 100 million years, according to Time magazine.

The study further concludes, employing a wide range of prediction techniques for the sake of accuracy, that the average global temperature will go up somewhere between 2.5 degrees and 10.4 degrees over the next century. (For the record, it took only 9 degrees of change, over thousands of years, to end the last ice age, according to Time.) Global warming impacts every human, everywhere in the world. It could shift entire climate zones, increase severe weather, dislodge whole populations, and, if temperatures keep rising for long enough, submerge coastal areas because of rising ocean levels.

Once easily dismissed as a nightmare scenario invented by paranoid environmentalists, today we know that this stuff is real. High-powered computer modeling technologies and highly reliable climate information have proved that over and over again. Washington, D.C. is missing the point. President Bush points to uncertainties in the research, but no science is truly exact and recommends further study instead of immediate action, Time reported in its April 9 cover story. Bush's position echoes that of his father, 10 years ago: We don't know enough about it. We need more time to study it. Let's wait and see.

That may have been true then. It isn't true now. Its repetition now is especially frightening when one considers that, scientifically; we've already waited too long. Carbon dioxide molecules stay in the atmosphere for about 100 years, so even if the world were to entirely halt all greenhouse pollution tomorrow, we'd still have a problem. On March 29, Bush announced that he had decided to cancel the Kyoto climate treaty, which was supposed to get the world's industrial nations to cut back on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Never mind that the U.S. signed the agreement in good faith after years of tough international negotiations. The Kyoto treaty, Bush said, was "fatally flawed."

On the surface, some of Bush's reasons for canceling the treaty may inspire nationalistic agreement, since he claims its terms are unfair to America. But on the other hand, perhaps America is being unfair to the world by producing 25 percent of its greenhouse gases despite housing only 4 percent of its population. Besides, Bush's reasons for nixing Kyoto are far deeper, and more deeply flawed, than that. He says it is impossible to fix the environment because, well, we have an economy to worry about. "In terms of the (carbon dioxide) issue, I will explain as clearly as I can today and every other chance I get, that we will not do anything that harms our economy," Bush explained. "First things first are the people who live in America."

President Bush doesn't seem to realize that a catastrophic climate change, one which could heighten heat waves, increase insect-born diseases and turn rich Midwestern farmlands into arid wastelands, actually is important for the people who live in America. And we're not talking about the next epoch or even the next millennium. We're talking 2100, if not sooner. It is easy to understand why Bush prioritizes the America’s economy above the environment. As Time pointed out, "Members of both major parties realize that global warming is a long-term problem that carries little short-term political risk. By the time their inaction causes big trouble maybe decades from now they'll be long gone. But if they foul up the economy, they'll be sent home next Election Day."

True, true. I always thought one of a government's most important roles was to provide society with a bit of forward-looking common sense. A 30-year-old man living in New Orleans may be pleased with Bush's decision today because his electric bills will go down. His great-grandson may be less pleased when he has to move inland because the ocean is slowly eroding his land. A private citizen cannot be expected to have such a long-term vision; a national government must. Yet Bush's government appears more than happy with the status quo, when polling numbers like those produced by CNN and Time show that 75 percent of the public thinks global warming is "very serious" or "fairly serious" and 67 percent say Bush should act to reduce emissions, but only 48 percent would support such reductions if they sent gas prices up by 25 cents; only 47 would support them if they caused utility bills to rise; and only 38 percent would support them if they increased unemployment.

The Onion, a satirical newspaper poking fun at the news of the day, may have put it best in a fake quote from homemaker Patricia Volk on the "What Do You Think" section of its website. "I'm against global warming," Volk supposedly said. "I'm also against altering my lifestyle in any way whatsoever to reduce it." This seems to be the prevailing philosophy. ("The Onion" also hit the nail on the head with another fake quote, this one from student Debbie Honig, who supposedly said, "As a Nader supporter, I'm thrilled to see the Green Party's master plan working so perfectly." One can't help but wonder whether Nader, the lifelong environmental crusader, loses any sleep these days wishing he had won 539 fewer votes in Florida.)

Bush, for what it's worth, says he is committed to some sort of pollution-cutting plan just not the Kyoto plan. Such promises make for splendid sound bites, but it is difficult to imagine any meaningful changes coming out of an administration that says flat-out it believes the national economy is intrinsically more important than the world environment. International pressure is mounting on Bush to reconsider his Kyoto position. He probably won't. More importantly, parts of corporate America are gradually waking up to this crisis, even if Washington has gone back to sleep.