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Leadership for a New Environmental Order

As the world awakes to the threat of global warming and other looming risks, the United States fails to take charge

THE United States is the only major industrialized nation that actively opposes an international convention to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. George Bush has championed international cooperation in a "New World Order," yet he chooses to stand alone by dismissing the risk of global warming.

The latest powerful scientific consensus report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) demonstrates that most scientists consider the global warm-ing threat to be real, profound, and urgent. Nevertheless, the US government appears unmoved. Perhaps John Sununu, who considered himself an expert in these matters, was partly to blame for this intransigence, but the US delegation to the most recent international negotiations made clear that their position would not change as a result of Mr. S ununu's departure.

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The administration has confused the debate among scientists over the rate and degree of warming of the Earth with doubt about our scientific understanding of the greenhouse effect itself. No scientist would predict with 100 percent certainty how much and how fast the Earth will warm. But scientists know enough about how the Earth works to conclude with considerable confidence that it will be warmer because of past and present human activities.

Three facts are compelling: (1) heat-trapping gases warm the Earth - if it were not for the naturally occurring gases, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor, the Earth would be a frozen ball of ice; (2) during the last 160,000 years, the Earth was warm when the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane were high, and it was cool when the concentrations were low; (3) human activity, mainly the combustion of fossil fuels, is causing the concentrations of these heat-trapping

gases to increase at an unprecedented rate. The only logical conclusion from these three facts is that the Earth will warm as we continue to produce more heat-trapping gases.

Some doubters of global warming argue that scientists have not come up with a smoking gun - i.e., proof that warming has already occurred and that greenhouse gases are the cause. Although scientists now agree that the Earth has warmed during the last century and that the greenhouse effect has probably contributed to this warming, scientists have not yet ruled out all other plausible explanations.

A lesson should be learned from a similar tragedy that occurred about 20 years ago when scientists warned that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were destroying the protective ozone of the upper atmosphere. Scientists generally understood the dominant mechanisms of ozone destruction, just as they now understand the dominant mechanisms of global warming, but they could not prove at that time that CFCs were unequivocally the cause, nor could they predict with 100 percent certainty how fast the problem would becom e worse. This uncertainty was used as an excuse to make only feeble attempts to control CFC emissions. The problem is now urgent, the cause is clear, and the ozone "hole" is growing alarmingly large.

The nations of the world have reached a remarkable agreement to phase out use of CFCs, which sets a precedent for the environmental new world order needed for the 21st century. The long lifespan of CFCs in the atmosphere (over 100 years), however, means that the CFCs emitted while action was delayed in the 1970s and 1980s will be destroying stratospheric ozone for another century, and the ozone hole will get worse before it gets better.

Similarly, many of the heat-trapping gases also remain for long periods in the atmosphere, so delaying action will commit the Earth to a century or more of further warming. When scientists can show that the gun and the bullets are real, the firing mechanism is reasonably well understood, and the gun is pointed right at us, we would be foolish to wait for smoke.

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The decision to act or not to act to reduced emissions of greenhouse gases boils down to a perception of risk. Scientists consider risks to maintaining a sustainable habitat for the Earth's flora and fauna (including humans); economists consider impacts of policy on production and consumption of goods and services; policymakers think first of the risks of a given action (or inaction) on the next election. Will the risk of global warming be a hot campaign issue in the 1992 presidential election? Probably not, because the weather this summer may be cooled by debris ejected into the atmosphere from the recent eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. A longer-term view of the risks of global climatic change is needed, but political risks in the US erupt on a four-year cycle.

The risk of doing nothing may appear on the surface to be somewhat less dire in the US than elsewhere. The US is nearly continental in size, so that a climate-driven shift in prime agricultural land from Iowa to Minnesota, while creating severe local disruptions, might not wreak havoc on national security. Sea level rises will affect low-elevation coastal areas in the US, such as Florida and the District of Columbia, but sea level rise is more threatening to island nations like Great Britain and Japan.

Western Europe and Japan have been dependent on foreign energy sources for a longer period than has the US, and they have well established precedents for improving energy-use efficiency. They know from experience that energy use can be modified to improve efficiency, and thereby reduce greenhouse gas emissions, without risking radical disruptions of their economies. The US experience, in contrast, has been to consume more energy to produce more GNP. While the US is hedging about even stabilizing its curr ent greenhouse gas emissions, Germany has begun an aggressive program to reduce its emissions by 30 percent.

If other industrialized nations can reduce greenhouse gas emissions without disrupting their economies, it is difficult to understand how this risk would be greater for the US. Increasing the energy efficiency of US industry would be an appropriate agenda item for Vice President Dan Quayle's Council on Competitiveness. Unfortunately, many American economists and politicians do not perceive the connection between efficiency of energy consumption and efficiency of the economy.

The Office of Technology Assessment reports that both "modest" and "tough" emission-control schemes depend largely upon the assumed future price of oil. The "modest" approach would have no net cost, while the "tough" approach would result in anywhere from a savings of $20 billion to a cost of $150 billion per year (in 1987 dollars).

The science of economics appears to have many more uncertainties than do the sciences of climatology and ecology. Nevertheless, governmental actions (and excuses for inaction) are routinely based on such uncertain economic projections.

We can avert much of the risk of human-induced climate change, but it will require international resolve and, hence, international pressure. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) will meet in Rio de Janeiro this June, and an agreement to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases could be adopted that would avert, or at least minimize, the impact of human actions on the Earth's climate. Many heads of state will be there, but President Bush does not plan to be among them. H ow ironic it is that the leader of the "New World Order" is the dead weight of the environmental world order needed for the 21st century.

But a changing perspective of the world may catch up with our leader. Even Henry Kissinger, the strategist of geopolitical order of the detente years, recently wrote that the world's population growth is destined to change geopolitical reality. Currently at 5.3 billion people, the world's population is likely to double in less than 40 years, with most of the growth occurring in tropical countries. The world order of the near future will be defined by the demand of these huge numbers of people on the limi ted resources of the planet. If the nations of the world meet this challenge, and if an environmental new world order does emerge from the potentially historic UNCED meetings, the US will be its first pariah.