Human nature the stumbling block in global warming agreement |

Human nature the stumbling block in global warming agreement

Patrick McCartney

A frantic moment near the end of last month’s international conference on global warming in Kyoto, Japan came to represent the issues involved in the debate, an energy analyst said at Lake Tahoe this week.

As delegates to the conference grew anxious about whether a political compromise could be hammered out, a conference official holding a stack of draft proposals was surrounded by a sea of grasping hands.

“The audience had turned into a mob, and I found myself part of it,” said Fred Branfman, coordinator of the Future Generations Initiative and Global Warming Central website of the Pace University Law School’s Energy Project.

The sight of dozens of dignitaries losing their cool struck him as an example of how difficult it is to regulate the use of fossil fuels in the modern world, Branfman told meteorologists attending the sixth annual Sierra Storm ’98 conference at Stateline.

“The treaty is all about our ability as a species to control our appetites,” Branfman said. “The real drama from my point of view is that the Earth has been here for five billion years, but we just happen to be here when three fundamental behaviors that have been rewarded through evolution now pose a threat.”

Branfman referred to human procreation, settling conflicts through the exercise of power, and the transformation of natural resources into products.

“These three behaviors, if pursued to their end, would at least harm our children, if not wipe out the future of humanity,” Branfman said.

After ironing out some of the most thorny issues, delegates finally approved a draft protocol that calls for industrialized countries to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Dropped was the United States’ call for developing countries to shoulder a share of the burden, an outcome that will, at best, delay adoption of the treaty in this country. Over the next year, the United States will lobby lesser-developed countries to accept some type of involvement, even if it is voluntary.

While modest, the Kyoto goals mark a crossroad in the history of the human species, Branfman said.

“As we look back from the 21st century, (Kyoto) will be looked at as a real watershed in human consciousness,” he said. “We made a real commitment to reduce hydrocarbon use. Without it, we would use 30 percent more in 2012 than we did in 1990.”

Motivating the countries supportive of the treaty is the rise in global levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Concentrations have increased from 280 parts per million at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to 360 ppm today. Scientists predict that a doubling of atmospheric carbon, which seems inevitable, “is likely to have wide-ranging and mostly adverse impacts …”

Branfman said scientific study of the condition is slowly building support in the United States to join the global campaign. But, he said lobbying and critical research funded by fossil fuel interests have clouded the public debate in the United States.

“My personal opinion is that we will avert global warming,” Branfman said. “It’s highly illogical, but it’s likely to happen. It’s as logical to suggest we can avoid global warming as it was in 1989 to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

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