10 de diciembre del 2000
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Notable Writings
Final Assessment of the Climate Change Conference

"The United States in the Eye of the Hurricane"

By Mark Sommer
*

The United States is sticking to a position at The Hague that will jeopardize the environment and destroy international discussions on global warming, according to a wrap-up by US-based essayist Mark Sommer.

BERKELEY, United States - The overwhelming majority of participants in November's failed climate change negotiations came away furious at the United States. Delegates and observers alike faulted the American government for a flagrant evasion of responsibility in seeking to avoid taking decisive action to reduce its disproportionate share of vehicle and industrial emissions by claiming credit for its forests and farms as "carbon sinks." One might have hoped for bolder leadership from the world's supreme power consumer, whose four percent of the world's population generates 24 percent of the globe's greenhouse gases.

But while bold innovation is the hallmark of American technology and aggressive unilateral action the trademark of its foreign and military policies, on a wide range of global concerns the US government is at best reluctant and at worst actively obstructionist.

How does the U.S. government get away with such irresponsible behavior? Do most Americans agree with their government's position? Polls confirm that a majority of Americans views climate change as a real problem, supports decisive national and global action to forestall global warming, and would even accept modest personal sacrifices, like paying higher energy prices and conserving energy, to address the crisis.

But only a tiny minority gives climate change a high priority on its lists of pressing concerns. Fewer still give financial support to the organized congressional lobbying efforts that shape actual policies. And those who do are hopelessly outspent by energy and auto industry interests with billion-dollar lobbying and advertising budgets financed by the public's purchase of their products.

While verbally committed to less consumptive lifestyles, many Americans commute hours to and from work each day driving mammoth sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and trucks whose fuel consumption might best be measured in gallons per mile. If they admit to a contradiction, they see it as a necessary evil in a society where there is not enough - and not enough time for - public transportation. In America, an automobile is more than a mere means of transport: one's car is one's castle, an emblem of personal power, a safe house when one's own home is inhospitable.

Industry opponents of the Kyoto treaty have effectively neutralized public concern about climate change by employing highly sophisticated public relations techniques to insinuate into the debate the spurious notion that scientists are evenly split on whether climate change is real and humanly induced. They have been aided in their deceptions by the misapplication of a venerable American tradition of journalistic objectivity that is all too easily forgotten when the interests of media magnates dictate but that proves remarkably useful in justifying the elevation of a tiny and scarcely credible minority view to equal standing with the preponderance of scientific judgment and material evidence.

The opposition's task has been made easier by the US media's cursory coverage of climate issues. Opponents have cleverly framed the Kyoto treaty as an attempt by unaccountable global bureaucrats to seize and destroy all that Americans traditionally hold dear - personal freedom, national sovereignty, and a freewheeling capitalist economy.

If Bush succeeds in fixing the election in his favor, heartland energy interests will take up long-term residence in the Oval Office. This cannot be good news for the climate or global negotiations. If the Clinton administration was obstructionist, a Bush administration would be downright retrograde. But the same election that brought us to this pass has also replaced several of the climate treaty's most adamant opponents with strong supporters in the US Senate, where all treaties must be ratified.

Moreover, in the three years since Kyoto, business sentiment has shifted from skepticism and hostility to a grudging acknowledgment that global warming is indeed a serious problem. A November 2000 survey of Fortune 500 executives found 34 percent supporting Senate ratification of the treaty, 26 percent opposed, and the rest lacking the information to decide. Seven major corporations, including DuPont and Polaroid, have pledged at least 15 percent cutbacks (twice the Kyoto targets) in the greenhouse gas emissions of their own production facilities.

Despite the insular attitudes that still hold sway in Congress and the White House, the virtual tie between the two political parties in the still-contested November elections indicates that the earth is beginning to move beneath the feet of the "good old boys" who have long held a hammer lock on American politics. Weak as he was as a candidate, Al Gore spoke for at least half the American public in his assertions that climate change requires Americans to take decisive personal and national action. Between the increasingly tempestuous weather, higher oil prices and a new, more outspoken generation of mostly women politicians, a dangerously complacent United States may yet awaken to its global responsibilities.

* Mark Sommer is a syndicated columnist who directs the Mainstream Media Project, a US-based effort to bring new voices to the broadcast media.

Copyright © 2000 Tierramérica. Todos los Derechos Reservados

Global warming - the focus of international debate. / PhotoStock
  Global warming - the focus of international debate. / PhotoStock