Hot Gases and Sleepless Nights

By Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff, Kyoto, Japan.

Late-night thoughts from the Kyoto Climate Summit.

Lock 10,000 people in a room in Kyoto, Japan to try to avert a global climate catastrophe, and what do you get? A bunch of jargon: sinks (carbon sinks, like forests, in that they store carbon), bubbles (an approach whereby the emissions from the European Union are calculated as if they were one country), square brackets (words or phrases that are still unresolved). And endless negotiations into the wee hours of the morning.

Bleary-eyed delegates, journalists and NGO (non-governmental organization) reps roamed the hallways trying to pick up on the latest rumours. In the back rooms language was negotiated that the various country groupings could live with.

By 3 AM today delegates from over 150 nations, after ten days of negotiations, were still working out a compromise between what the planet needs, and what the politicians were prepared to do in the face of powerful vested interests. Country reps are expected to sign a document calling for a 5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade or so, but only if they have the ability to “trade” emission reductions with other countries. Once ratified by the countries whose reps sign on, it will become a legally binding treaty, perhaps the most important in the history of the planet.

The IPCC, composed of 2500 expert climate change scientists, is virtually unanimous in concluding that human’s burning of fossil fuels is having serious impacts on the livability of the planet. If left unchecked, the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will trap heat and make for a hotter planet. The impacts of that are erratic weather, spreading disease, and rising sea level.

The US, Canada and a few other hyper-industrialized countries are loathe to promise much. Speaking about the less industrialized countries, who want to avoid constraints on their future, Dominique Voynet, French minister for the Environment said: “Most of the population of our planet has not yet been invited to the banquet of development… this should be done without imposing cynical constraints that no industrialized country imposed on itself at the same stage of development.”

Many small island states worry that rising sea levels would mean that their countries would disappear. President Clodumar of Naurua, a remote, tiny Pacific island, described his people’s plight as being “trapped, a wasteland at our back, and to our front, a terrifying, rising flood of biblical proportions…: Respectfully, the willful destruction of entire countries and cultures with foreknowledge would represent an unspeakable crime against humanity. No nation has the right to place its own, misconstrued national interest before the physical and cultural survival of whole countries. The crime is cultural genocide; it must not be tolerated by the family of nations.”

But “the family” is being bullied by special-interest-interlopers. The fossil fuel lobbyists have spent millions over the past few months trying to confuse the public with their own version of apocalypse. To hear them tell it, solving global warming by investing in efficiency and renewable sources of energy would destroy the economy.

Interestingly, the American public doesn’t seem to be buying industry’s line. A recent New York Times poll showed that the public backs a tough approach towards global warming. Almost two thirds of those polled believed that the US should take steps now to cut its own emissions regardless of what other countries do. And most believed that it would be a good thing to improve energy efficiency.

Canada’s spokespeople for the fossil fuel industry are the petrol twins Ty Lund and Steve West, Alberta environment and energy ministers respectively. We caught up with them in the halls of the Kyoto International Conference Hall. When asked for his response to groups (like Greenpeace) that are calling for an end to fossil fuels, West said: “You will never see an end to it. You can’t in a world that depends so much on increasing their standard of living and survivability because of energy.” Ty Lund just said: “Get lost.”

Said David Suzuki: “When I hear Alberta saying that …there’s no way they’re going to have anyone do anything to interrupt or destroy their economy, it strikes me that it sounds just like the American states not long ago, when they were saying ‘our economy’s based on cotton and we need slaves to pick the cotton and there’s no way anyone’s gonna abolish slavery and ruin our economy.'”

Jennifer Morgan of the Climate Action Network, the largest coalition ever formed on an environmental issue, called for leadership to solve the problem. “We have all been held hostage by these special interests… companies such as Exxon, Texaco and Mobil must not keep you from acting responsibly and moving forward.”

The technology to dramatically cut carbon emissions is available now. It wouldn’t be difficult to double energy efficiency in much of industry, and our homes. And it would save money and create jobs to boot. What is needed more than anything is a change of attitude.

Author Bill McKibben found seeds of hope. “The handwriting is clearly on the wall. People are going to be using less, not more, fossil fuel…What’s important is to figure out a way to change the direction. We can’t stabilize the climate overnight. We can’t cut consumption overnight…. But if we can deflect the trajectory of our current path then we have at least an outside chance, and on energy we are going to deflect that trajectory a little bit. That’s what this conference means, bottom line.”


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