By the wise contrivance of the Author of nature, virtue is upon all ordinary occasions, even with regard to this life, real wisdom, and the surest and readiest means of obtaining both safety and advantage.
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments
On 13 March President George W. Bush wrote to four Republican Senators informing them that he would not be ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, aimed at reducing worldwide emissions of ‘greenhouse’ gases, especially carbon dioxide – the same protocol Al Gore as Vice-President had negotiated on behalf of the United States in 1997. A few days later, he bluntly defended his decision at a Washington press conference: ‘I will not accept a plan that will harm our economy and hurt American workers … first things first are the people who live in America; that’s my priority.’ Bush’s abrupt decision to back out of an agreement already made by his former opponent was greeted with dismay by many Democrats and even some sensitive Republicans, and by greens and environmentalists throughout the world, a world in which America, with 4 per cent of our planet’s population, emits a quarter of all the greenhouse gases, mostly for generating electricity, heating, cooling, and for running its transport system. Reminded of his campaign promise to support mandatory cuts of co2 from American power stations, Bush declared that ‘circumstances have changed since the campaign … We’ – meaning Americans – ‘are now in an energy crisis.’
A few days later Vice-President Dick Cheney, like Bush a Texas oil industry veteran, announced a new American policy of generating more energy, rather than conserving existing supplies, and predicted that the US would need between 1300 and 1900 new power stations in the next twenty years, most of them burning coal – ‘not the cleanest source of energy,’ Cheney conceded, ‘but the most plentiful source of affordable energy in the country.’ Philip Clapp, president of the US National Environmental Trust, denounced Cheney’s plan as ‘an across-the-board attack on the environment’. Europeans began calling Bush the ‘Toxic Texan’. Scientists have all but unanimously condemned the new US Administration’s abrupt change of stance, a typical comment coming from Nature, which claims that Bush’s decision, together with others easing restrictions on ergonomics and on the level of arsenic permitted in Americans’ drinking water, makes it ‘abundantly clear where his Administration stands on matters in which scientists would normally play an important advisory role. It stands firmly with the employers and polluters who helped to pay for Bush’s singularly unimpressive election victory last November, and damn the scientific evidence.’ By coincidence the Intergovernmental Panel on Climatic Change, meeting in Nairobi less than a month after Bush had effectively torn up the Kyoto Protocol, posted on its website a report updating the conclusions reached in 1995 by its Working Group One, on which the 1997 Protocol was based. The new findings, endorsed by more than a thousand distinguished climatologists, are that climatic conditions are steadily getting worse; if we go on as we are, the scientists warned, our planet’s near-to-medium-term outlook may well be grim.
Cape Grim, aptly named in 1798 by its British discoverer, Matthew Flinders RN, is a 3o0-foot sandstone spike projecting into the Southern Ocean on the wind-whipped western coast of Tasmania. Here nine weather scientists reporting to the IPCC work shifts in a huddle of prefabs, rotating in from Smithton, the nearest small settlement, sixty miles away by bush road. High over their heads a mast topped by air-sampling instruments soars another two hundred feet. Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station is one of an international chain, all in out-of-the-way places, far from human habitation – Barrow in Alaska, Alert in the Canadian Arctic, Ushuia near Cape Horn, the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, in Antarctica near the South Pole, and others – set up after the International Geophysical Year of 1957 raised the alarm about the atmosphere. Cape Grim is squarely in the track of the steady westerlies known by sailors as the Roaring Forties, which in those latitudes blow uninterrupted around the planet; the nearest land is the southern tip of Patagonia ten thousand miles away. Like those of its sister stations, the Cape Grim station’s reports to the World Meteorological Organisation in Geneva tell a uniformly alarming story: in the past twenty years, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the pure sea air it measures has risen 10 per cent, and the rate of increase is accelerating. The figure is reliable; there is no percentage in faking the weather. As far as any humans can be, the IPCC’s scientists are as impartial as the air we breathe. Atmospheric co2 is, beyond any doubt, rising sharply.
When Bush remarked that co2 is not a pollutant, he showed, or perhaps feigned, a shaky grasp of the carbon cycle, and thus of what the headline-grabbing fuss is all about. In a sense he is right. In itself, carbon dioxide is harmless, even fun. We all exhale a kilo or so of co2 a day; it makes the bubbles in soda water, the froth on beer and the swirling vapour clouds (produced by its frozen form, dry ice) through which pop stars make their entrances. Without co2, in fact, we would not be here. By the natural process of photosynthesis, the complex pigment chlorophyll – the green of terrestrial and marine vegetation – uses the energy of sunlight to fix the carbon component of co2 and the hydrogen and oxygen of water to make carbohydrates. We consume them, either directly in our healthy green salads, or at second-hand, in our Big Macs, fish fingers and chicken tikkas, and then breathe out the corresponding quantity of co2, which is recycled through the air and sea and back to us as more carbohydrate. The carbon loop used to be closed, and if we had stuck to hunter-gathering and muscle-powered farming, it might have stayed so for ever.
Then we found fossil fuels. Marco Polo reported that the Chinese kept warm by burning black stones, but our present energy gluttony has its origins in Abraham Darby’s successful use of coke for iron smelting in 1709, James Watt’s invention of the external-condenser steam engine in 1765, and the sinking of the first oil well by Elmer Drake at Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859 – all of them, we might note, English-speaking businessmen. The three significant fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – were all at one stage (mostly) carbohydrates, living matter fossilised during a relatively short time, if we can call ninety million years a short time, some two hundred million years ago, in what European geologists call the Carboniferous Period and their more parochial American colleagues refer to as the Mississippian and Pennsylvanian. The process was the same on both sides of the yet-to-be-shaped Atlantic. Enormous stands of trees, ferns and other flora flourished in swamps, and were buried under the sand, silt and mud of titanic floods. The vegetation that stayed where it was became coal; crude oil, produced in the swamps by bacterial action, migrated up into the overlying beds of sand, which also trapped vast quantities of marsh gas, also called methane or natural gas. (The digestive tracts of ruminants such as cows work in rather the same way as swamps; their flatulence contains methane, delicately referred to as ‘husbandry emissions’ in the literature. Ours do not, in any harmful quantities.) All three forms, having lost the oxygen they once had, consist mostly of hydrogen and carbon – whence the term ‘hydrocarbons’. Coal also contains sulphur, phosphorous and other lethal impurities alluded to by Cheney; petroleum contains less of them, while methane is pure carbon and hydrogen. Burned as fuel, all three give off carbon dioxide, and thus reintroduce to our atmosphere – currently at a rate of nine billion tons a year, and rising – the carbon fixed by ancient sunlight that has been out of circulation for millions of years. We are overloading our pre-industrial, closed carbon loop.
Those who found the last few months a little on the soggy side should consider life in the Carboniferous. The seas were wider and shallower then; the Earth was very nearly awash. Both Poles were denuded of ice; the climate, perfect for giant swamp ferns, would have been unbearably hot and humid for humans, the atmosphere unbreathably contaminated with methane and carbon dioxide. As we sloshed about in our oxygen masks, the planet would have reminded us of a giant tropical greenhouse, a Carboniferous Kew. Our atmosphere has no glass walls, but the principle is similar. In an actual greenhouse, the sun’s heat enters through the glass roof but has trouble escaping, as the walls keep cooling breezes out. In the Carboniferous, the sun’s rays partly warmed the atmosphere and were partly reflected back, as they are now, but the Earth was mostly a heat-absorbing swampy colour, and more of the energy of light is trapped by certain gases – notably by carbon dioxide – than by oxygen and nitrogen, the basic ingredients of our air.
The result of increasing co2 is that more of the sun’s heat stays with us, melting our ice and snow (which reflect heat back into space). The added melt-water makes the seas rise, and, at an accelerating pace, we head back to the Carboniferous, whose long-buried carbon was causing us no harm until we started digging it up. (That the greenhouse effect is real is beyond doubt; some British tomato growers pump carbon dioxide into their common or garden greenhouses.) So far, the manmade changes in the climate detailed by scientists in the new report of Working Group One have not been all that great – or not when viewed in the long term. In the 20th century the Earth’s average surface temperature increased 0.6 °C ± 0.2 °C, which we would hardly notice in our bathtubs. The increase up to 1995, however, was 0.45 °C ± 0.2 °C, so things were hotting up at an accelerating pace in the last five years of the century. The Earth’s snowfields, observed by satellites, have shrunk by 10 per cent since the late 1960s; the average sea level rose between 0.1 and 0.2 metres during the 20th century (as a result of a combination of the thermal expansion of the warmer oceans and the increased run-off of melt-water). The atmospheric concentration of co2 has increased by 31 per cent since 1750; the present level of co2 in the air has not been higher in the past 420,000 years and probably not (in the scientists’ cautious estimation, a 66-90 per cent chance) in the past 20 million years. The present rate of increase has no precedent in the past 20,000 years – that is, since the last Ice Age. How do we know all this? By analysing air bubbles trapped in samples brought up from boreholes some two miles deep in the Antarctic and Greenland ice-caps.
Even to the layman’s eye there is convincing scientific evidence that the fossil-burning habits of humans are responsible for these changes. The new IPCC report has four damning graphs: the curves showing the atmospheric concentrations of three greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – and another curve showing sulphate aerosols, co-emitted with airborne soot, deposited in Greenland ice, are level until the late 1700s, and then all four begin to climb together, approaching vertical as we near the year 2000. The simplest, indeed the only reasonable explanation is that these suspiciously matching curves have a single cause. Already at work when Blake wrote about dark Satanic mills, it became more conspicuous when Elmer Drake struck oil and was thoroughly established by 1900, when one Englishman in ten was a coal-miner. The Industrial Revolution made a new civilisation, if we can call it that, sustained by the fossil fuels we are burning at an ever increasing rate. Without them not a furnace would glow, not a plane would fly, no trucks would roll. The same fossil fuels, it should be said, power the word processor on which I warn of the impending deluge, the subways on which, with luck, we get to work, and almost all the comforts and conveniences to which we are accustomed. (Would we willingly go back to quill pens and hansom cabs?)
The likely advance of global warming is detailed by the IPCC’s Working Group Two, another star-studded panel of scientists, in Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Downloading, the first thing we notice about this report is the wide latitude built into its forecasts. By the year 2100, they say, our global average air temperature will be up by between 1.4 and 5.8 °C (from barely noticeable to really hot), the mean sea level up anything from 0.09 to 0.88 metres (the differing depths of a puddle and a pond). If the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets both melt over the next thousand years, global sea levels could rise by as much as six metres – nearly twenty feet.
But, before we run for the boats, we should note that these changes, short or long-term, will not be evenly distributed; the inhabitants of some regions will probably benefit. Predictably, the worst-off will be those who are badly off now. Some island nations, like Kiribati, a group of Pacific atolls nowhere more than six feet above the present sea level, may disappear altogether. Bangladesh, which gets three rice crops a year from the Ganges and Brahmaputra deltas, at the cost of frequent disasters caused by floods and storms, will become an even riskier place for farmers. In general, subsistence farmers, especially in Africa, will find their present abysmal food security situation getting much worse. Malaria, dengue and yellow fever will spread. On the other hand, parts of South and South-East Asia, now short of water, will probably benefit; vast areas of Russia, now permafrost, could turn into fertile farmland, and Finland might become a wine region. Generalising the scientists’ forecasts, climatic conditions in the northern hemisphere will move bodily northward, 125-200 miles for every rise of half a degree centigrade in air temperatures (conditions will move less far south in the southern hemisphere), with hard-to-quantify consequences like the disruption, or even disappearance, of the North Atlantic Carrier which brings Caribbean warmth via the Gulf Stream, and its cold counter-current returning from Norway with spawning eels. There are, on the face of it, three alternatives: the exhaustion of fossil fuel (14 million years’ accumulation of oil went up in smoke in the last century), the discovery and widespread use of alternative, non-carbon sources of energy, or life in a hotter, wetter and stormier world, but one still habitable by adaptable creatures like ourselves.
Against this ominous, if ambiguous scientific background, delegates from more than a hundred countries: diplomats, politicians and swarms of lobbyists (63 from US oil and coal companies alone) gathered in Kyoto in the autumn of 1997 to hammer out a global warming treaty. In his presciently titled book (Bush had not yet loosed his thunderbolt when the MS was completed), David Victor of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, calls it ‘the Kyoto fantasyland’, and in retrospect there was never a chance of a workable agreement. But the Kyoto delegates believed they had two precedents to hearten them. In 1985 Joe Farman, the head of the British Antarctic Survey – the UK’s contribution to the International Geophysical Year of 1957 – reported a bizarre development to Nature: in the previous decade the layer of ozone (o3), which filters out the harshest of the sun’s ultra-violet radiation, had thinned by 50 per cent in the summer months, adding to global warming, and raising the incidence of skin cancer and cataracts. The culprit finally turned out to be the designer gas Freon, properly chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), developed in 1930 by the American chemist Thomas Midgley for General Motors Frigidaire as a substitute for the poisonous liquid ammonia previously used in refrigerators. Freon is almost chemically inert, non-poisonous; it boils at room temperature. It did a great job in the air conditioners that were just coming in. By 1974, world production was nearing a million tons a year when evidence surfaced that Freon had another, unexpected property: exposure to ultra-violet rays in the upper atmosphere loosens its chlorine component, catalysing the breakdown of ozone at the rate of one unit of CFC to every 3800 of ozone. Not only was it escaping from our old refrigerators, but we were using it as a propellant for our deodorant sprays and as an industrial solvent. All the while it was eating holes in the ozone sunscreen over our heads.
Swift action followed. In September 1987 a protocol, or draft treaty, was ready for signature in Montreal. The chief American negotiator, Richard Benedick, conceding that the science was still far from precise, pleaded for a rapid response. ‘If we are to err in designing measures to protect the ozone layer, then let us, conscious of our responsibility to future generations, err on the side of caution,’ he urged. The delegates cheered. The signatories agreed to halve production of Freon and its imitations by 1996. ICI and DuPont came up with hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) by way of a substitute – HFCs are also greenhouse gases, but they leave the ozone layer unharmed. Worldwide, CFC production should be phased out by 2010. With a journalist’s disenchantment, Norman Moss reports in Managing the Planet that bootleg CFC is still being made in Russia and China and smuggled into wealthier countries, but, since CFC is bulky and cannot be sniffed with any pleasure, the trade is gradually dying out. The hole in the ozone layer, according to the World Meteorological Organisation, seems slowly to be mending.
Then, in 1992, Congress passed an amendment to the US Clean Air Act aimed at cutting emissions of sulphate aerosols – co-emitted with industrial smoke – which were harming Americans’ lungs and disfiguring their cities. Americans dislike restrictive laws and love markets. The upshot was an ingenious scheme of emission trading, within the US only, modelled on the system of ‘air rights’ in New York and other big cities, whereby the owners of low-rise buildings can sell the unoccupied space overhead to adjoining skyscrapers, which can therefore be higher. On the same principle, emitters of sulphur dioxide such as power stations are assigned a limit by the Department of the Environment and emissions are metered at their smokestacks by devices checked every New Year’s Day. Firms exceeding their DoE quotas are currently fined $2500 for every excess ton of so2, but – this is the novel part – those who come in under quota can sell the difference to the highest bidder. At the Chicago Board of Trade auction in 1996, the price was less than $70 a ton, but it has risen since. What’s more, the scheme has shown results. Not only are big-city American collars noticeably cleaner, but – combined with the decline of heavy industry in the other major polluter, the former USSR – the telltale deposits of sulphate aerosols in Greenland ice cores fell in the 1990s.
A British scientist, Professor Michael Grubb of Imperial College, London, first suggested that these two unlikely successes might become the models for a worldwide assault on global warming. Guilty gases could be identified, targets and times negotiated for their reduction, and nations coming in under quota could trade their shortfalls with those who exceeded theirs – a ‘cap and trade system’ for short. What made this scheme even remotely plausible was support from highly influential quarters in the US, whose participation has always been seen as essential, not only because the US is emitter-in-chief and sole pretender to world moral leadership, but because it is undoubtedly the style-setter and (after a sooty British start) the great exponent of hydrocarbon civilisation, with its energy-guzzling air conditioners, cars, planes and the rest.
Al Gore heard about the greenhouse effect at Harvard, and in 1992, the year he became Vice-President, published Earth in the Balance, advocating international co-operation to fight it. Not long afterwards, Bill Clinton issued a ringing challenge in a speech in Queensland: ‘We must stand together against the threat of global warming. A greenhouse may be a good place to raise plants; it is no place to nurture our children.’ Developing countries, however, want to emit more, not less carbon dioxide, as they join our hydrocarbon culture. China emits barely a tenth as much per head as the US – 2.3 tons against 20.1 tons – and strenuously rejects any cap on emissions. ‘The West,’ India’s Environment Minister Kamal Nath said in the run-up to Kyoto, ‘has luxury emissions. Ours are survival emissions’ – thinking, perhaps, of the smoking cowpats over which Indian farmers cook their curry. In the preliminary haggling, more than a hundred developing countries claimed exemption from carbon emission capping, but some agreed to be compensated in return for absorbing more of the rich nations’ emissions. To a Republican-dominated US Senate, this sounded suspiciously like compulsory charity, or tax, and inspired the Byrd-Hagel Resolution (passed 95 votes to 0): the Senate would not ratify any agreement which did not include ‘specific scheduled commitments’ by the developing countries. This did not stop Tim Wirth, the US Under-Secretary of State for Global Affairs, announcing at a preparatory conference in Geneva: ‘Let me make clear the US view – the science calls on us to take urgent action.’ Yet, in 1993, early in his Presidency, Clinton had already failed to get a marginal tax on energy, the BTU Tax (Americans use the British Thermal Unit, along with the mile and the pint), past Congress. In their enthusiasm for Kyoto, Clinton and Gore had already gone further than Congress would accept – at a time when a second Bush in the White House was still barely imaginable.
What concentrated minds at Kyoto was a single sentence in the IPCC’s Second Assessment Report of 1995: ‘The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.’ Pooh-poohing the IPCC’s science has been one line of attack by Bush’s backers. While global warming is far from ‘crank science’, as the critics of Kyoto have called it, it is not the science any practising politician is likely to remember from high school, or voters readily comprehend. The weather and its historical continuum, the climate, are ‘chaotic’ phenomena, where small changes in input can lead to huge variations in output, and a hot day can set off a hurricane. Chaotic phenomena oscillate between approximate limits, known as ‘attractors’, but these can sometimes be exceeded. The new house-sized super-computers can model a chaotic situation, but even a computer as big as the Ritz could not peer very far into the future. Nonetheless, the IPCC could say with confidence that humans are causing too much global warming, and make a well-educated guess at how.
Bursting with good intentions and spurred by a deadline, almost ten thousand delegates converged on Kyoto in 1997, using assorted forms of energy-intensive transport (some Europeans came on the Trans-Siberian railway), to save the world as we know it. ‘If we fail at Kyoto,’ Tony Blair said, ‘we fail our children, because the consequences will be felt in their lifetime.’ John Prescott arrived in person to stiff-arm any opposition; other political heavies followed. Clinton lobbied Argentina and Brazil by phone. The troubling reservation of the US Senate apart, climate control looked uncontroversial. Moss and Victor both have excellent accounts of the Kyoto haggling, Moss stronger on the science, Victor more critical of the trading plan, perhaps because he is an American. Real-world treaties are negotiated by politicians and diplomats looking out for their standing at home, and even before the delegates at Kyoto sat down to the cheerful welcoming banquet, self-interest was noticeably darkening the doorway.
Conventions are good business anywhere. As Japan’s leading tourist destination, Kyoto has ample accommodation and no heavy industry, but there were deeper reasons for the choice of venue. Japan loves the environment as a redeemed sinner loves virtue. Because of the rush to industrialise and then to recover from the war, Japan’s cities were once among the most polluted on earth. But the Japanese took the oil shocks and energy price rises of the 1970s as personal challenges for the belt-tightening at which they excel. Japan is now the world’s second industrial economy, but it emits fewer than nine tons of carbon per head a year, less than half America’s emissions, and close to the less heavily industrialised EU’s average of 8.5 tons. Japan gets more value out of the energy it does use, more cargo for the kilowatt, than anyone else, but by methods not everyone would accept, if they could postpone the pain by rejecting the heavy taxation that is part of the Japanese way.
Japanese power and petrol are the most heavily taxed in the world, the revenue going to the frugal Japanese treasury, and not to Arab oil sheikhs and Australian coal barons. Japanese trains are in permanent rush hour, suburban stations are surrounded by forests of bicycles, city streets dim to the point of danger. But, in a world still suspicious of Japan, global leadership in anything is precious – and as a bonus, Japan also leads in the manufacture of smokestack scrubbers, a hot export prospect should something like Kyoto ever come to pass, although even the ingenious Japanese have found no energy-efficient way of removing the paradigm greenhouse gas co2. The Environment Minister, Ms Yoriko Kawaguchi, even speaks wistfully of Japan going it alone as an exemplar, and achieving its Kyoto target of a 6 per cent co2 reduction on 1990’s emissions – given Japan’s economic slump, this may not be impossible. European environment ministers say that they, too, plan to go ahead, and Denmark has actually ratified the Kyoto treaty; it is the first European nation to do so.
The scheme agreed at Kyoto is now mostly of academic interest, except perhaps as an object lesson in futility. Michael Grubb’s cap-and-trade was enthusiastically pushed by the Clinton Administration and no other approach was seriously considered in two months of tense, not to say frantic bargaining. The first item of business was to agree an estimate of who was emitting what. Back-of-envelope figures were acceptable from the ‘developing’ (i.e. poor) nations, who were there in sufficient force to exclude themselves from capping, and anyway emit modest amounts per head – China 2.3 tons, Latin America 2.2, Africa under a ton – while industrialised nations keep reasonably reliable records. To avoid accusations of fiddling the starting date, 1990 was agreed as a good round number safely in the past. A target of returning global emissions to 1990 levels during the period 2008-12 was set – not that this now unattainable dream would have stopped global warming: the co2 we have already emitted will be up there for at least another hundred years. But it would have been a start, and might have slowed the rate of increase. The 1990 starting year raised complaints of unfairness. What Kyoto tactfully calls the ‘reforming countries’, meaning formerly Communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, have seen their heavy industries collapse, and are 0.6 per cent down on 1990 levels – or, put another way, these countries (with Russia and the Ukraine benefiting most) could have 6.3 billion tons of emission rights to sell to the big emitters, North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand (all ‘Annex 1’ countries in Kyoto-speak, i.e. prosperous). On the whole the 1990s were a good, polluting decade for all Annex 1 countries, so we need to reduce our emissions by 7.4 per cent from 1990 levels; this target is close to an annual one billion tons of carbon emitted. Australia, a champion emitter (16.6 tons per head) and a major coal exporter to other chronic emitters, managed to negotiate a negative target – and possibly a quota to sell – arguing that 1990 had seen abnormal clearances of carbon-absorbing bushland. The EU came up with its own deal-within-a-deal: a joint commitment, or ‘bubble’, to reduce overall emissions by 8 per cent from 1990 levels, while the poorer members, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, were allowed to increase theirs – by 27 per cent in the case of Portugal. France, deriving 60 per cent of its energy from nuclear power, is committed to no cuts at all; Britain and Germany got off lightly, both having dropped below their 1990 emission levels – Britain by deindustrialising and moving from coal to natural gas, Germany by modernising East Germany. Prescott said Britain could manage a reduction of 12 per cent, and might even achieve 20 per cent.
This left the US and Canada, both with a Falstaffian thirst for energy, and too big for Japanese-style bicycle commuting, needing to cut their 1990 emissions by around 7 per cent. How to get North Americans to dim their lights, turn down their thermostats, and walk? Some far-sighted US corporations had already addressed the problem, in a modest way. It is usually cheaper to achieve emission reductions in poor countries than in rich ones, and the atmosphere doesn’t care which. As early as 1993 the US launched a Joint Implementation Initiative, and so far $450 million has been spent on 25 projects in Russia and Latin America: either on renewable energy sources like dams and wind generators or on tree planting and renewal, the living trees serving as carbon ‘sinks’. Applied Energy Services Inc., for instance, has planted 52 million trees in Guatemala, which are calculated to soak up the carbon emitted by its new coal-fired generating plant in Connecticut (the catch is that the trees could, eventually, be chopped down and burned). The Dutch add a small levy to electricity bills to pay for tree-planting in more spacious countries. Kyoto sought to universalise this idea as a Clean Development Fund, with the fines paid by over-quota emitters going to help poor countries limit their already sparse carbon emissions and adapt to inevitable climate change. The rich emitters were not keen, until the Brazilian proponents of the scheme (by which Brazil stood to gain handsomely) produced one of Kyoto’s few concessions to real-world politics, albeit a cosmetic one: describe the Fund as a ‘mechanism’ and call penalties for non-compliance ‘contributions to compliance’. This sounded suspiciously like eco-colonialism to one African delegate, who angrily demanded: ‘Why should African governments let their land be used as a toilet for absorbing emissions from Americans’ second cars?’ To make money, Kyoto proposed. The Clean Development Mechanism was added to the protocol’s ever expanding dream machinery.
Kyoto’s last fortnight approached hallucination, with furious arguments in crowded corridors, hectic late-night sessions followed by world-class hangovers. Thirty delegates went to hospital, dehydrated and exhausted. At the final, all-night session, American delegates stood on chairs trying to get the call from the Argentinian chairman, Raúl Estrada Oyuela. Others slept. Just after 10 a.m. on 11 December 1997, after some deliberately imprecise wording had been added, Estrada called for a vote. Roused from a daze, some delegates later said they were uncertain what they had voted for. Eighty-six nations signed the protocol at the UN in New York; Clinton signed for the US at a subsequent, ineffectual meeting in Buenos Aires. Together, the signatories emit 88 per cent of excess global co2. After Kyoto, nothing much happened; the Earth got three years warmer, while everyone waited for the US to ratify. Then Bush spoke.
In the light of day, or even of simple accountancy, Kyoto never had the hope of a snowflake in the Carboniferous, especially in Washington. By proposing what Victor calls an ‘imaginary emission trading system’, Kyoto created a new form of property – emission permits – worth over $2 trillion, but specified no mechanism for enforcement, adjustments, or settling disputes. International law knows of no authority, apart from energy-intensive war, to compel states to honour treaty obligations and pay their debts. If emission trading ever happens, Russia and the Ukraine could collect between $120-$170 billion between 2008 and 2012, perhaps more, by selling the results of their industrial decline to the Western nations, depending on how the more successful countries get on with their targets, and this without making any real reductions at all. ‘No wonder,’ Victor says, ‘suspicious environmentalists call this “hot air” trading.’ No wonder, either, that Argentina and Kazakhstan are keen to accept Annex 1 targets, so they can join the bazaar and sell permits, too. Developing countries were set no targets, and so have no permits to sell, but stand to collect hundreds of billions of dollars from a CDM big enough to offset the ever increasing carbon emissions of the wealthy – compared with current aid budgets totalling a miserly $50 billion. Global share-the-wealth schemes (once called socialism) may be commendable, but they were not in Kyoto’s mandate, much less features of Bush’s philosophy.
What next? A Micawber school of climatology suggests we do nothing at all, on the grounds that future technology will find ways of reducing co2 and other greenhouse gas emissions and that these methods will cost less than anything presently in sight, so why worry? Long before that happy day, Miss Liberty may well be up to her bodice in New York Harbour, which would leave us with two hundred years or more of excess co2 still up there, warming away. A related approach, which might be called the Gather-ye-rosebuds school, argues that global warming is a natural process which we may, at worst, be speeding up a bit. Geology records four major Ice Ages and many smaller ones in the past 650,000 years; another is very likely on the way. Previous Ice Ages have been characterised by (relatively) short warm periods, followed by long spells of cooling-off, caused according to the current theory by small irregularities in the Earth’s orbit leaving more heat-reflecting snow and ice at the Poles, which in turn leads to cooler global temperatures and to further accumulation of snow and ice, which as recently as 20,000 years ago covered the sites of London and New York, playing merry hell with property values, had there been such things – but then, what are prime frontages on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon fetching? By Nature’s erratic clock, we should now be in the later stages of a new warming-up phase, with our seas some hundreds of feet above historic lows and within tens of feet of historic highs – which could be exceeded, of course. Our climate ought to be warming up, if not quite so fast. So let’s enjoy our fossil fuels while they last.
Another, less hedonistic idea (to be combined with drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and burning more coal) was among those put forward on 17 May by the cabinet-level White House team charged with finding more sources of energy for the US: expanding nuclear power. True, nuclear power plants do not, at least by design, emit anything toxic; uranium 235, although it comes out of the ground, is not a fossil fuel. Environmentalists, however, still have reservations about atomic energy, which has never fulfilled its early promise of generating electricity ‘too cheap to meter’. No new nuclear plants have been built in the US since 1979, when a reactor briefly ran wild at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. No one died, but up to half a million Pennsylvanians were at risk. No reliable toll of the casualties at Chernobyl, where a reactor went out of control in 1986, has been published, but it may have run into thous-ands, and nearby residents are still affected. Chernobyl has now closed, but in 1990 it was the cause of Sweden’s decision to give up ideas of nuclear energy, and similar anti-nuclear moves in Austria and Germany. Britain had a scare at Windscale, Japan at Tokaimura, where two workers died. France has never had a serious nuclear accident – or, until recently, a Concorde crash.
The advocates of nuclear power will say that boilers used to burst in James Watt’s day. John Ritch, a former US Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, has argued that coal-mining takes more lives in a week, through pit accidents and air pollution, than atomic energy has in half a century. The same agency has calculated that today’s nuclear plants cost $2000 per kilowatt capacity to build, against $1200 per kW for new coal plants and $500 per kW for natural gas. This is, however, only part of the true cost. Between 1974 and 1998 the OECD (whose members are the advanced industrial nations, i.e. the biggest air polluters) poured $159 billion into nuclear power research, in pursuit of electricity ‘too cheap to meter’, while the American Price-Anderson Act limits the liability of the US nuclear industry to $10 billion in any single accident, a fraction of what a worst-case Three Mile Island would cost. The Act is a kind of tax on the victims of some future catastrophe. Dick Cheney believes is should not be allowed to lapse next year. If it is not renewed, he argues, ‘nobody’s going to invest in nuclear power plants.’ The real problems of nuclear power, however, go far beyond cost and the need for disguised subsidies of this kind. Nuclear plants inescapably produce plutonium, the stuff of bombs. If nuclear culture spreads, as hydrocarbon civilisation has, to the remotest corners of the world, many more states will have nuclear weapons. Even more alarming is the problem of nuclear waste, which can be a risk to human life for 100,000 years. So far, no one has built a permanent waste disposal site; deadly material is simply shuffled around from one temporary dump to another, often at night to foil protesters. Predictably, Russia has started talking about accepting other people’s nuclear waste ‘in perpetuity’ for up to $1600 per kilogram, payable now. Keeping it from harming us all, at least until the next Ice Age covers it over, will demand a continuity of institutions (in Russia?) without precedent in human history.
We have heard this story before, or something very like it. In December 1918 President Woodrow Wilson, a desiccated version of Clinton, arrived in Paris to set the world to rights. Led by France, the embittered European victors traded a polite enthusiasm for Wilson’s pet idea, the League of Nations, in return for the vindictive peace terms for Germany and Austria that made another war highly likely. Wilson wrecked his health, far more than the sybaritic Clinton has done, trying to sell his vision to a suspicious American Senate, the Republican members of which objected to the idea of collective security – that is, the armed enforcement of League decisions, which would involve American troops, thus curtailing the US’s freedom of action or non-action. The Senate rejected the League, and the US never joined. In 1920 Warren Harding, a semi-literate Republican with close ties to an oil industry ever eager to drill in Federal oil reserves, was elected President on a nostalgic promise of returning to ‘normalcy’, meaning to small-town American values. Harding became the epitome of the dim politician hoodwinked by tough, greedy mentors. Wilsonian idealism, however, has never died in America, and is never likely to. In 1928 the US Secretary of State Frank Kellogg and the French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand devised the Pact of Paris, outlawing war for ever. Wars of self-defence were permitted, however, as well as those upholding the Monroe Doctrine, and there was no enforcement mechanism. About 160 nations piously joined. World War Two broke out 11 years later; all the combatants claimed to be fighting in self-defence, and some of them may have been.
Apart from the perennial cycle of American high ideals and hard noses, there are disturbing signs that we may be in an entre-deux-guerres phase, analogous to the 1920s. Peace reigns, more or less, but arms proliferate, and the world is drifting into camps. The ultimate line-up is as blurred as it was in 1928, when the Bolsheviks were pariahs, Hitler had sunk out of sight, and no one dreamed that there could be a capitalist-communist alliance against anyone. The Kyoto fiasco has left us in a similar state of mutual suspicion. On one side are Europe and Japan, national communities long before the Industrial Revolution, which have never taken kindly to its slag heaps and smokestacks. The White Cliffs of Dover, the dense forests of Teutonic myth, the beach at St Tropez, the unblemished cone of Mt Fuji are central to national self-images; fossil fuel, the way we are pigging in, will despoil them all. Moss notes that Hitler’s National Socialist Party was the first to make the environment, Germany’s anyway, a campaign issue; behind the Nazi caricature was the old Ciceronian ideal of a class of patricians drawing their patriotic and spiritual ideas from a love of nature and the land, particularly if they owned it. Opposed to what is, in effect, the climatic Concert of Europe that we see forming, and largely contemptuous of its ideals when it deigns to consider them, is the democratic New World, led by its most energetic members, the US, Canada and Australia, champions among per-capita emitters, who are discreetly forming a common front against Kyoto. Fossil fuels turned them from nervous seaboard toe-holds into nations the size of continents. The iron horse opened the prairies and tamed the outback; steamships carried their exports and brought them their immigrants. Far from letting nature alone, the New World uses fossil fuels to subdue it: air conditioning, space heating, the endless, truck-choked highways have already changed their climates to an extent unknown in the Old World. A New World paradox is at the heart of the dilemma of global warming: the nations with some of the world’s most dedicated environmentalists and most extensive systems of national parks and nature reserves, are also the most enthusiastic buyers of fuel-thirsty sports-utility vehicles, Range Rovers and their macho kin, owned almost exclusively by city dwellers who wish to enjoy (and pollute) their sites of natural beauty.
As in the 1930s, the usual fence-sitters are facing both ways. Russia doesn’t want St Petersburg to slip under the Baltic, but has no objection to dumping nuclear waste in the Siberian backyard that has already had to accept Stalin’s heavy industries. Britain, especially the Home Counties, frets about the White Cliffs, but the country has an eco-realist-eco-sentimentalist, north-south divide, and hopes to build up its nuclear processing business by buying up American reactors, without a clue about what to do with the waste. China will most likely follow Japan’s lead: pollute in haste, clean up at leisure. India is drilling for more oil. The fateful sentence of the IPCC’s second report raises, in a quiet way, a novel question: it never really dawned on anyone before that, as a species, we have the planet in our collective care. Still undecided about what we owe each other now, we must now decide what, if anything, we owe our posterity a dozen, a hundred generations down the line. Victor argues that global warming is not a suitable subject for treaties requiring political ratification (in the most important case, by the US President and two-thirds of the Senate). Moss quotes Tocqueville in Democracy in America:
Foreign policy demands scarcely any of those qualities which are peculiar to a democracy; on the contrary, it calls for the perfect use of all those qualities in which a democracy is deficient. Democracy is favourable to the increase of the internal resources of a state; it diffuses wealth and comfort, and fortifies the respect for law in all classes of society; but it can only with great difficulty regulate the details of an important undertaking, persevere in a fixed design, and work out its execution in spite of serious obstacles.
Meanwhile, new evidence is coming in from the uttermost ends of the earth that global warming goes on apace while the industrial democracies dither and count the cost. A five-month expedition just back from Heard Island, an Australian outpost above the Antarctic Circle, reports that the island’s 34 glaciers have shrunk by 12 per cent in volume since 1947, half the loss occurring since the 1980s. Fifty years ago, the only inhabitants of Heard were three pairs of king penguins and a few fur seals; now, the expedition’s glaciologist Andrew Ruddell reports, there are 25,000 penguins, 28,000 adult seals, 1000 seal pups and even a few wild roses. A seemingly slight rise in air temperature, 0.7 °C, has set off these spring-like changes. Temperatures on the nearby Antarctic ice sheet, also claimed by Australia, are –20 °C to –10 °C, still cold enough to stave off melting. But, Ruddell remarked on his return, ‘we have seen the break-up of the ice shelf in the Antarctic Peninsula region, and that is getting into the zero degree range because it is further north, so there is a slight change there.’ Far away in equatorial Africa, air photographs taken in February show that Mt Kilimanjaro has lost 82 per cent of its ice cone since 1912, and may become bare of snow between 2010 and 2020. Melt-water from an African mountain and a remote Australian island will scarcely affect sea levels in the Thames, also rising lately, but the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic icecaps would surely set off a new Noah’s Flood. At what point should we try to prevent it, and how hard? And who, in this connection, are ‘we’? Rich nations, poor nations – or all of us?
Herein lies the central problem. Emission trading, indeed any concerted measures against global warming, imply a world economic system, an extension of the same globalisation that is being blamed for spreading hydrocarbon civilisation. Such a system does not run itself, as we learned in the 1930s. Central banks are quietly asserting independence from their governments and drawing nearer to each other, as the only way of keeping the world economy more or less functioning. In a similar way, a notional set of independent climatic authorities might meet, out of the media spotlight, and try to decide what to do about global warming. Such bodies could hardly include practising politicians and, as the atomic bomb showed, scientists have no more ethical competence than the rest of us. The unplumbed depths over which the advocates of Kyoto so naively skated call for some radically new philosophy, but philosopher-kings grate on democratic sensitivities. Setting interest rates, which central banks can do, is relatively easy; the climatologist-kings, on the other hand, have no legal basis for imposing wordwide energy restrictions. Nevertheless, the much misrepresented Adam Smith, far from defending a conscienceless capitalism, thought that given enough time, our behaviour towards each other could gradually improve, citing the decline, though not yet the disappearance, of slavery and infanticide, both accepted without a qualm by the ancient Greeks and Hebrews. If global warming has any solution, it can only come from the sense of human solidarity and the individual self-respect that Smith hoped might temper the short-sighted greed of purely commercial society. Coupled, as of now, with the name of George W. Bush.
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