U.S. divided on climate change

As world leaders prepare to discuss global climate change Tuesday, the U.S. continues squabbling internally over its consequences.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | October 31, 2005

"We have been working on climate change issues for awhile."

—Cassandra Carmichael

As world leaders prepare to discuss global climate change Tuesday, the U.S. continues squabbling internally over its consequences.

The world can reduce greenhouse gas emissions only by establishing an initiative that includes the U.S., publicly argued British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is chairing a London-based conference on global warming this week.

The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, and any new agreement simply won't work if the U.S. - the world's biggest polluter - refuses to participate, Blair said. The Kyoto Protocol - an international agreement reached in 1997 in Japan to address the problems of climate change - commits 38 industrialized countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. President Bush refused to ratify the Kyoto treaty when 141 countries signed up to it this year because he said it would be too costly to the U.S. economy.

Blair also argued that the problem of global warming cannot be dealt with unless any new agreement includes India and China - exempted from the current protocol because they are classed as developing countries.

Is there any chance the U.S. could participate in future protocols? "I hope so," said Cassandra Carmichael, director of eco-justice programs for the National Council of Churches. "As people in the faith community, we hold out eternal hope. That's part of the flag we carry. We believe that impossible things are possible. I really do hope so."

Carmichael said she sees global warming as a major moral issue of today. "It's a global issue. It's not a local issue. It has extreme justice and poverty implications. We can argue about why Katrina happened - but the fact of the matter is Katrina showed us what it would be like to experience that devastation and see that the people who are going to be impacted the most are the people who don't have the means to adapt."

Some experts estimate that constant change in climate is causing a sea level rise that is likely to engulf 11 percent of Bangladesh's land area, affecting the country's 5.5 million people along its coastal belt by 2050. Other experts say global warming will cause larger, more intense hurricanes.

Drawing another comparison from Hurricane Katrina, Carmichael asked people to consider what it would feel like to simply lose their community.

"I'm from New Orleans," she said, "and so I understand very much how wedded a community can be to their land - and how difficult it can be to lose it."

The National Council of Churches has been advocating for awareness of global warming and its implications, she added. "We have been working on climate change issues for awhile. Anecdotally speaking, we're getting more traction within our community - and from outside our community, too."

But some opponents think the the consequences of global warming have been exaggerated, and that the U.S. shouldn't shoulder so much blame. Global warming simply isn't a problem that has to be dealt with in a timely manner, argued Dr. S. Fred Singer, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Science & Environmental Policy Project. "The current warming trend is modest in relation to natural warming and may be partly of natural origin," he said.

With regard to a new protocol, he said, "I think the problem will be to persuade China and India to join."

Yet if people disagree on the impacts of global warming, they are coming into increasing agreement that reducing emissions is a good idea.

"In general, practicing conservation by using less energy can also save money," pointed out Singer. "That is one of many reasons why I personally use public transportation where available, turn off lights, and turn down heat and air conditioning."

Carmichael said people should ask themselves some direct questions to provoke a personal approach to global warming - an issue that has become so mired in politics it's often hard to see its everyday implications. "What can you do in your personal life?" asked Carmichael. "What can do in your community? What can you do on the federal level? On a global level?"

Not everybody has the life framework to act on all those levels, she admitted - but most people can act on one or more of them. "We have church congregations putting solar panels on their roofs," she said. "We have congregations that are doing 'bike to worship' Sundays."

When the Kyoto Protocal was enacted, the National Council of Churches took out an ad in a popular Capitol Hill newspaper that urged the U.S. to engage in the protocol. The ad also urged people to contact policymakers about the issue.

"We had 10,000 people contact senators and representatives to say this is an important issue," said Carmichael.

Meanwhile Tony Blair publicly said he hopes the politicized debate will make room for a reality check. He blamed the problems surrounding the climate change debate as "a reluctance to face up to reality and the practical action needed to tackle problems."

Those countries outside the current Kyoto agreement will be at a London conference this week - a week Blair described as "crucial" in the fight against climate change.

Blair said they would discuss "huge opportunities" in technology.

"We need to see how the existing energy technologies we have such as wind, solar and - yes - nuclear, together with new technologies such as fuel cells and carbon capture and storage, can generate the low carbon power the world needs," he said.

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