After three years of diplomatic fatigue, the United States put delegates from 170 countries out of their misery at the latest round of climate talks at The Hague in November by scuttling the negotiations and, in the process, thumbing its nose at nature as well as at the rest of the world. The good news is that the collapse of the global warming talks may set the stage for a truly transformative initiative to pacify the inflamed climate and, at the same time, dramatically expand the global economy.
The world’s glaciers are melting, the oceans are heating up, tropical diseases are migrating north and the weather is becoming increasingly destructive. All that is the result of a l-degree increase in temperature over the past century. By contrast, the world will warm by up to 11 degrees this century, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The United States killed the Hague negotiations by insisting on meeting its Kyoto goal (reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, primarily coal and oil, to 7 percent below 1990 levels) simply by planting trees and buying cheap emissions credits from poor countries. But the escalating pace of climate change makes it clear that a reliance on carbon-trading and tree-planting is nothing more than an expression of institutional denial of the magnitude of the problem. The EU, frustrated by US foot-dragging, refused to cave, demanding that Washington meet at least half its obligation through real domestic reductions in oil and coal burning. The result was a diplomatic meltdown.
Abandoning the minimalist goals of the Kyoto Protocol, many European nations are now taking their cues from science: The climate crisis requires 70 percent cuts in a very short time if civilization is to avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming. Britain, which in November suffered its worst flooding in centuries, will cut emissions 60 percent in the next fifty years. Holland, faced with a devastating sea-level rise, will cut emissions 80 percent over the next forty years. Germany is contemplating 50 percent cuts.
The US obstructionism also ignores a recent sea change in attitudes among Congressional Republicans, corporate leaders and multinational oil companies. Three years ago, Nebraska’s Senator Chuck Hagel co-sponsored a resolution not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Today Hagel concedes the science of global warming. Last year, Indiana’s Richard Lugar and James Woolsey, former head of the CIA, called for the United States to begin reducing coal and oil use by substituting energy from agricultural wastes.
Oil companies, with the exception of ExxonMobil, are similarly moving to confront the crisis. Shell has created a new, $500 million core company for renewable energy. Its director was recently appointed to head a new G-8 task force on clean energy. Texaco is putting serious resources into renewables. British Petroleum, with major solar investments, now advertises that BP stands for “Beyond Petroleum.” In the auto industry, William Clay Ford recently declared an end to “the 100-year reign of the internal combustion engine.” That declaration follows Ford’s participation in a $1 billion joint venture with Daimler-Chrysler and Mazda to bring fuel-cell-powered cars to market in three years. (These initiatives are partly “greenwashing,” aimed at pacifying environmentalists, but they also reflect preparations by oil and auto companies to maintain their role as prominent players in a new energy economy.) Most striking, at the World Economic Forum in Davos at the end of January, the CEOs of the 1,000 largest corporations voted climate change the most urgent issue facing humanity today.