Commentary: Preventing Climate Change, By: Tom Kelly

Friday January 06, 2006

Our planet’s climate is changing rapidly as greenhouse gas pollution accumulates in the Earth’s atmosphere. There is no longer any doubt that human activity (i.e., the production of gases from the combustion of fossil fuels, combined with an increasingly consumption-oriented human population and rampant deforestation) lies at the heart of climate change. All of us—from individuals to governments, and everyone and every institution in-between—must drastically reduce the greenhouse gases that we are responsible for producing, or we will experience increasing changes in the climate that will cause significant ecological, economic, and social upheaval. 

We can already observe the impacts of climate change in low lying island and coastal countries that are now being inundated by rising seas. In the Arctic, millennia-old cultures are threatened and may soon disappear. Sub-Saharan Africa is being devastated by drought. The increasing number and intensity of Gulf Coast hurricanes that wreaked havoc this summer are a harbinger of what lies ahead if we don’t take seriously the extreme climatic events we are experiencing. 

The world’s governments recognize the threat posed by climate change and are undertaking serious efforts to develop a global response. This response is embodied in the treaty known as the Kyoto Protocol, which obligates developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5-7 percent below their 1990 levels by 2012. Last month, the United Nations hosted representatives from virtually every nation on Earth in Montreal. There, they agreed on a “roadmap” for emissions reductions and established a process that will enable the Kyoto signatories to negotiate additional reductions for the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period, which begins in 2013. 

Unfortunately the United States, the world’s greatest emitter of greenhouse gases, refuses to participate in the Kyoto process. The U.S. delegation in Montreal sought to torpedo the Kyoto process by refusing even to engage in negotiations that could eventually lead to concrete emissions reductions. Instead, the U.S. touted its belief that global emissions can be reduced simply by developing new technologies. Certainly technology will play a role in reducing greenhouse gases. But even the U.S. acknowledges that these new technologies will not be available for 15—25 years—a delay that climate scientists insist we cannot afford. And although the U.S. expresses an almost religious faith in technological deliverance, it has failed to fund the necessary research and development. Instead, the U.S. provides multi-billion dollar subsidies for oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear. It has allocated only a pittance for clean, renewable energy technologies that can be put in place today. 

The U.S. also contends that the economy will suffer if we are obligated to reduce greenhouse gases. In fact, the opposite is true. Jobs are created and economies will be developed as the world transitions from economic systems that are built on fossil fuel consumption. As cleaner, renewable sources of energy replace fossil fuels, economies will flourish. More of a country’s wealth (or that of a state, county, or city) can be invested in its own development. New industries and new jobs will be created. California alone employs 170,000 people in the renewable energy sector and is likely to see the number of jobs increase as the state enacts regulations intended to put 1 million solar roofs on homes, businesses, government buildings, and schools by 2016. U.S. states, cities, and industries are awakening to the economic benefits of addressing the causes of climate change and are taking advantage of the new business opportunities.  

The U.S. also complains that fast-developing countries like China and India do not have emission reduction obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, putting developed nations like the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage. In the short term, that claim may be true. But the Montreal climate talks demonstrated a growing consensus among governments that developing countries must also incorporate greater energy efficiencies in their development activities. The Montreal meeting opened that discussion and developing countries will participate—if the U.S. will exert the type of leadership for which it was once known. 

We must act now to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions if we are to avoid irreversible climate change and the myriad effects it will bring. Local and individual actions in the U.S. are already making a difference: 195 cities representing 40 million Americans have endorsed Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels’ Climate Protection Agreement and 14 states have joined regional coalitions to consider cap and trade programs and other measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  

Contact us at kyotousa@sbcglobal.net or visit our website at www.kyotousa.org to learn about what you can do to engage your city in reducing greenhouse gases where you live. The Earth, and everything that inhabits it, is counting on you. 


Tom Kelly is the director of KyotoU.S.A, a Berkeley-based volunteer organization that encourages cities and the people who live in them to work together to end global warming. He attended the recent UNFCCC climate talks in Montreal as an official NGO observer.