Why We'll Probably Be Too Late to Save the Planet

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When it comes to the environment, the good news is that we are more aware of the effects of our behavior than we were a few decades ago. The bad news is that even once global warming reaches crisis proportions too difficult for U.S. leaders to ignore, any corrective measures we then allow them to take may well take several more decades to make any difference.

New studies in recent weeks have documented the warming of the planet through the shortening of winters over centuries, while anecdotal evidence of the absence of pack ice at the normally frozen North Pole underscores the sense that the planet may now be undergoing a more rapid warming process that could have catastrophic climatic effect. NASA's revelation Thursday that the hole in the ozone layer is continuing to grow, however, may be a chilling warning about the pace of environmental damage. After all, an international treaty curbing outputs of the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other pollutants that gnaw away at the gaseous layer that protects our planet from harmful radiation has been in force since 1987. NASA scientists point out the hole may be continuing to grow because, despite the sharp cutbacks that took effect more than a decade ago, the concentration of the offending gases in the stratosphere may only now be reaching its peak. By extension, it may take decades before we feel the full impact of whatever damage we're doing to the Earth's climate system right now — and that time-delay may make it even more difficult politically for the world's leaders to take the steps they deem necessary to avert a climate-change catastrophe.

The U.S. is the 500-pound gorilla of atmospheric pollution on the planet, accounting for the more than a quarter of the world's total output of carbon gases. But although President Clinton signed the 1997 Kyoto Accord committing the U.S. to cut its output levels to 5.2 percent below the 1990 levels by the year 2010, he hasn't dared send it to Capitol Hill. (And without curbs, the government's Energy Information Agency estimates, U.S. carbon gas outputs will actually grow by 33 percent over the present decade.) Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush is resolutely opposed to adopting the Kyoto targets, and while Al Gore helped negotiate the treaty, he's shown little inclination to press for its ratification, which would face almost certain defeat in the Senate. After all, Americans are already blanching at having to pay almost $2 a gallon for gasoline, but in order to reach the Kyoto targets the pump price might have to be even higher in order to discourage consumption and prompt the auto industry to shift its emphasis away from gas-guzzling SUVs and toward more fuel-efficient vehicles. Slashing carbon gas outputs will ultimately demand lifestyle changes in America, but no politician wants to be the bearer of bad tidings. Which means that if the worst fears of environmentalists prove true, it may be decades too late by the time we're prepared to change our ways.