A string of new studies indicates that we are witnessing the early signs of something potentially catastrophic: The Earth’s temperature is rising. Glaciers are melting, extremely heavy rainstorms have increased by 20 percent in North America this century, and spring has been arriving a week earlier in the Northern Hemisphere.
The cause appears to be the emissions from the fossil fuels we burn to heat our homes, run our cars, power our industries and cultivate our farms.
The Earth’s climate has remained stable for the past 10,000 years, but global warming threatens the stability that fostered the development of modern civilization. Rapid warming could render whole forests more vulnerable to the ravages of disease, pests and fires, destroying watersheds. Rising sea levels, flooding, drinking-water shortages and the northward spread of tropical diseases could displace millions of people. The economic and human costs may devastate continents, creating a crisis larger, and possibly more enduring, than any in recorded history.
The question is no longer “Is our climate changing?” but “What can we do about it?” The cause and consequences of climate changes are global and require global response.
The stakes are high, not only for those directly in harm’s way of the physical effects of warming, but also for those who have staked their economic well-being on fossil fuels. To stabilize the world’s climate will require reducing greenhouse gases by half during the next century, and countries need to begin to cut emissions soon if adaptations are to be made without disruption. But the challenge - and required changes - are of such scope and magnitude that courageous multilateral steps, beyond what has been accomplished even in our landmark arms control agreements, are necessary.
Such bold steps also are essential if we are to address the looming threat to geopolitical stability posed by climate change. Just as arms control treaties sought to limit and reduce the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers, creating an environment of cooperation that encouraged the peaceful transition of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, world leaders must create similar, durable, international structures for limiting and reducing greenhouse pollutants while providing for an orderly transition to the use of the energy sources of the future.
Our best prospect for such an agreement is an international greenhouse-gas-emissions budget system. Nations would adopt internationally binding caps or budgets on pollution. Those which reduce emissions could earn emissions savings to bank for future use - or to sell to others to meet their budget requirements. Over the long run, the innovative, technology-rich U.S. economy could benefit, with U.S. industry competing on an equal footing to offer pollution controls in world markets.
What would it take to create such a structure? To begin with, the United States must lead the way. If we promote the concept internationally, others will follow. Four key elements would make an agreement successful.
First, any agreement must encourage maximum participation, permitting all nations to earn or use tradable emissions credits at some level, whether by using energy more efficiently, switching to less environmentally damaging fuels, or planting and preserving forests that absorb pollution.
Second, to encourage developing countries to participate as soon as possible, industrialized countries - especially the United States - should speedily set an example by adopting these budgets. Industrialized countries also should find ways to make it easy for others to join in. One interim method would be for industrialized countries to provide incentives (such as credits) for their own companies to work with the industries in developing countries to reduce emissions.
Third, the agreement will need tools to enforce compliance. International - and domestic - support for a budget system will fade if it permits some countries to evade responsibility or imposes unacceptable disciplines on our own. A treaty should include a range of realistic options for deterring emissions profligacy. Violations could be identified by international inspectors along the lines of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency. Similarly, in response, economic measures such as sanctions or embargoes might be emplaced through the U.N. Security Council.
Finally, President Clinton should demonstrate his personal commitment to this effort. Just as he took the lead in furthering the Chemical Weapons Convention, so should he lead the battle against this new threat to global security.
He should not be swayed by arguments that global agreements would spawn an intrusive international bureaucracy. Comparable criticisms were leveled at the arms treaties and dispelled - and the danger from not taking action is just as severe. Those agreements demonstrated that global problems could be solved through international agreement. Their lessons can help us limit and reduce the growing threat from climate change before we find ourselves facing catastrophe.
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