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Hot Air and Climate Change

The globe may be warming, but a decided chill is in the air at the United Nations climate conference this week in Buenos Aires. The meeting aims to work on implementation of last year's Kyoto accord.

That agreement calls for industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions to 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. But it faces a host of roadblocks.

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First, it asks for economic sacrifice by the United States and other developed countries while excluding such key developing countries as China, India, and Brazil. These nations' greenhouse emissions will soon rival, indeed exceed, those of the long-industrialized nations. It won't work.

Second, scientists are still seeking confirmation that industrial emissions cause global warming. The Earth has gone through radical temperature shifts before; human activity contributed to none of them. The climate is warming. Carbon dioxide volume is up. But the best argument for reining in industrial emissions is still only that doing so would be prudent.

Third, the European Union has thrown a monkey wrench (a spanner) into the works by proposing caps on the pollution "credits" each country could buy. Such credits would allow some companies to emit more by purchasing credits from a firm whose emissions are lower than allowed. But without a free market in credits, they will be far less likely to reach the goal.

The US Senate will likely not ratify the accord during this administration - certainly not until the above issues are addressed. Argentina is trying to bridge the gaps, proposing voluntary pollution limits for developing countries. But many balk even at that.

The conference may make modest progress on writing the international rules. But delegates will have to work hard to stave off the possibility of its collapsing altogether.

Even so, those who worry about climate change need not despair. The most hopeful trend since Kyoto is the number of large corporations in the US and elsewhere voluntarily seeking to reduce their emissions. In the short run, such efforts will probably lessen pollution more than will diplomatic wrangling at UN conferences.

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