During President Clinton's weekend conference in Denver with leaders of the "Group of Seven" and his address today before a special session of the United Nations General Assembly, global climate change will be among the primary topics of discussion.
It appears that the issue is heating up these days - and for good reason. As the result of a UN-estimated average global temperature rise of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit in the next century, the world may experience widespread flooding, the disappearance of small island nations, and rowboat-only access to Bourbon Street, Broadway, and countless other coastal spots. This prognosis will be compounded by a world population that could reach 10 to 12 billion, or higher.
Although the United States, the European Union, and 153 other nations officially recognized the problem of global climate change at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the United States remains woefully behind in fulfilling the Bush administration's pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Public awareness of the pending disaster has lagged behind as well, because of efforts by fuel companies and other corporations who see themselves harmed by emissions limitations.
Global climate change results when increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere block the escape of infrared, or thermal, radiation. Human activities in recent years have increased the levels of all of these gases, including carbon dioxide, ozone, methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons. Water vapor is the only exception.
Carbon dioxide is the most troublesome, accounting for 60 percent of the enhanced greenhouse effect. Fuel burning, agriculture, automobile exhaust, and other human emissions contribute an estimated 22 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, and have caused an unprecedented 10 percent increase in atmospheric levels of the gas in the last 20 years.
Negligence by the US and the six other industrial nations of the Group of Seven - which account for 38 percent of greenhouse gas production - could lead to an estimated one to three foot increase in sea level and a mid-latitude climate zone shift of approximately 200 miles in the next century.
There is no question that controlling greenhouse gas emissions is a priority for achieving sustainable human development. And, surprisingly, this is one key step toward self-preservation that can actually be beneficial to economies. Mr. Clinton has proposed an international strategy of establishing a greenhouse gas emissions quota based on a financial credit system. A similar program to control acid rain has been environmentally successful as well as cost-effective. In addition, incentives could be extended for the research and development of alternative energy sources and more efficient technologies.
The recent attention to global climate change is encouraging, but any energy policy that seeks to halt global warming cannot ignore the fact that the current world population of 5.9 billion people is projected to double in only 40 years - with 98 percent of the increase occurring in the developing world. As nations such as China and India - accounting for over 2.2 billion people - seek to industrialize, what level of havoc will their greenhouse gas emissions wreak on the atmosphere?
WE must recognize that global climate change and other abuses of the environment are symptoms of the strain imposed by rapid population growth, and a reversal of the warming trend is unlikely unless there is a meaningful reduction in fertility.
The time is now for Clinton and other world leaders to set a course for our planet that looks beyond the present and minimizes the damage humanity has already inflicted.
The residents of numerous small island nations, who face sci-fi horror in the real-life possibility of being reclaimed by the sea, would be the immediate beneficiaries. In the all-too-near future, however, the beneficiaries would include everyone's children and grandchildren.
* Werner Fornos is president of the Population Institute in Washington.
Controlling greenhouse gas emissions is a key to sustainable human development.