Uncle Sam behaved like a spoiled, whiny, gluttonous bully at the global climate conference this week in Kyoto, Japan. It's really embarrassing.
We live in the richest and most powerful country on earth
We live in a world which adds enough humans each year to fill eight to ten more New York cities and where about 20% of those already here don't get enough food each day to provide the minimum energy needed for a human being. This is the equivalent of the energy in just one cup of gasoline.
Yet American leaders will only agree to make a small cut in our greenhouse emissions. And, they'll make this concession only if the world's poorer countries agree to significant cuts. However, these Third-World nations have done very little to get us into this predicament. Governments and global corporations from the first world now push automobiles, processed and imported foods, large factories, disposable packaging, and other elements of our high-emission lifestyle onto poor countries. Meanwhile, much of their energy is used to make goods for us. How many tons of carbon did China emit in order to manufacture the toys, tools, clothes and other goods Americans are consuming so ravenously this season?
Back-to-back ads in The New York Times' "Special Section on Global Warming" make the partisanship very clear. On one page, dozens of organizations representing fossil fuel, automotive, trucking, chemical, fertilizer, and agribusiness companies encourage President Clinton not to sign a treaty that could increase energy costs. On the next page, hundreds of physicians from all over the globe implore world leaders to develop plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions promptly and significantly. Their ad lists many of the likely health effects of climate change including increased air pollution, the spread of infectious diseases, as well as the disruption of safe drinking-water supplies and food-producing ecosystems.
This debate, like those over cigarettes, pesticides, or nuclear power, for example, sets narrow, self-centered economic interests against widespread public risks.
As usual, those who make dangerous materials out of subsidized resources end up with enough money to skew both public debate and the government, thereby stifling any real positive changes.
The important issues, tragically, aren't even being discussed. The underlying assumption for many people is that we'll proceed into the future just as we've been going for the last few decades. Any progress made toward a more efficient society will be small improvements in "business as usual," rather than significant changes.
Here's a perfect example. Industry has convinced us that we need a newly-made aluminum can, with a fresh coat of paint for every 12 ounces of beverage we drink. The Times reports that a large Colorado brewer found that it could dry the paint on a billion beer cans using ultraviolet light instead of natural gas heat and thereby cut back US annual emissions by a few millionths.
Big deal! Humans have made and consumed beer for thousands of years without emitting any fossil carbon at all. Once coal, oil, and gas were discovered, however, industry found dozens of ways to consume them in making and distributing beer. These uses range from making fertilizers for the grains and hops to hauling empty cans to the recycling plant. This energy-intensive approach made sense only because subsidized fossil fuels seemed very cheap and because we believed that there would be no consequences from dumping enormous quantities of fossil carbon into the atmosphere.
If this energy use is not benign, however - and climate change is just one of its negative effects - perhaps we should rethink the way we do things.
It's increasingly clear that the kinds of changes we need to turn the situation around won't happen until disasters force them on us, unless individuals and groups lead the way.
We need to rediscover the pleasures of satisfying our needs close to home using solar energy, green plants, and human creativity.
Anything less is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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