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Climate Change: Tipping Point

4 July 2005

Climate Change: Tipping Point

By Gwynne Dyer

“The debate is over. We know the science. We see the threat posed
by changes in our climate. And we know the time for action is now.” So
wrote Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, explaining his
commitment last month to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions below the
2000 level by 2010, and below the 1990 level by 2020.

Over one-tenth of Americans live in California. Another sixth live
in other states and cities that have pledged to cut emissions back to 7
percent below 1990 levels over the next seven years — a deeper reduction
than the European Union has committed itself to. President Bush will once
again say no to action on climate change at the G8 summit in Scotland this
week, but it just doesn’t matter as much as it used to.

Last month, the scientific academies of all the G8 countries,
including the United States, issued a call for this year’s summit to
acknowledge that climate change is happening and to take action now to
reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As host, Prime Minister Tony Blair has
made action on climate change a high-priority issue on this year’s G8
agenda, but President Bush will not be moved. Interviewed by British
television last week, he said that his faithful British sidekick could
expect no “quid pro quo” on the climate issue in return for having dragged
Britain into the war in Iraq.

If the summit supported binding commitments to cut greenhouse gas
emissions like the curbs mandated by the Kyoto accord on climate change,
said Mr Bush, “then the answer is no. [Kyoto] would have destroyed our
economy.” Oddly, none of the other big industrialised countries present at
the G8 believes that Kyoto would destroy its economy, but they have all now
accepted that the US federal government will not be on board until 2009 at
the earliest.

In response to this, the debate among the other seven countries has
moved on: should they dodge the issue of global warming at the G8 entirely,
or to make a strong statement in support of further measures to curb
climate change and see the US refuse to sign it. That argument will
continue even after the leaders arrive at Gleneagles on Wednesday, but it
hardly matters which way it comes out.

The real decision to proceed without the United States was taken
when Kyoto went into effect four months ago, after Russia ratified it. All
of the world’s other industrialised countries except Australia are
committed to proceed with the emission cuts mandated by Kyoto, to negotiate
deeper cuts in a second round, and to find ways to include large developing
countries like China and India in the process. And leaving the US to catch
up later is getting to be a habit.

A treaty of global scope that omitted the US was once unthinkable,
but it’s now thirteen years since the first time that the rest of the
world, in exasperation, just decided to get on with an international
treaty, leaving America to sign up whenever some subsequent administration
sorted out the politics in Washington. That was the Law of the Sea Treaty,
rejected by the Reagan administration in 1982 but brought into effect in
1994 after 140 other countries ratified it. The US Senate is still
struggling to ratify it, but in the rest of the world it is already law,
and in practice the US usually goes along with it. It just has no say in
how it is administered.

In the later 1990s it became increasingly common for international
treaties to get around American roadblocks by simply leaving the US out.
The Land Mines Convention and the International Criminal Court were the
most notable ones, and strenuous US attempts to sabotage the working of the
ICC came to naught. In a way, President George W. Bush’s rejection of the
Kyoto Accord and everybody else’s decision to go ahead with it anyway were
almost routine. They felt they had no choice — but the fact that the
United States alone accounts for some 25 percent of global greenhouse gas
emissions did seriously impair the treaty’s effectiveness.

That was the worry in 2001, when Mr Bush “unsigned” Kyoto. It is
much less of a worry in 2005. The extraordinary strength of special
interest groups in Washington and the paralysis that so easily occurs in a
political system built on a sharp division of powers make it hard for any
US administration to move at the same speed as the rest of the world, even
with the best will in the world. But the American people do not live on a
different planet from the rest of the human race, and they too are starting
to notice that the climate is changing in worrisome ways.

American cities and entire states are already taking independent
action to cut emissions, and American industry is gradually realising how
great a disadvantage it will face if its rivals elsewhere become more
energy-efficient in a world where the cost of fossil fuels is soaring. The
US will be along sooner or later, and it is now generally agreed that it is
not worth making major concessions to the Bush administration in the hope
of getting its cooperation. Wait forty more months for the next
presidential election, and by then events — more and bigger hurricanes,
floods, droughts and heat-waves — will probably have convinced American
voters that it is time to sign.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“If the
summit…earliest” and “A treaty…administered”)
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.