Global warming may have bigger impact on US than September 11th

 

January was the balmiest on record in the US, writes Conor O'Clery, International Business Editor, on Wall Street

For anyone living in the US these days it is clear the times are out of joint, and not only because of the war on terrorism. Most regions of North America are experiencing their warmest winter on record, a phenomenon that points to accelerating climate change with more far-reaching implications than September 11th.

January was the balmiest recorded in the US and throughout most of the northern latitudes since global records were first kept 123 years ago, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Temperatures in the US from November 2001 to January 2002 were 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit above the average for 1895 and 2001, confirming a trend set in the 1990s that will impact on the economy, life-style, demography and eco-systems of much of the northern hemisphere in the coming years.

People are disconcerted and wildlife confused by the changing times. Birds are not migrating, rats are proliferating. Migrating geese are hanging around Wisconsin instead of flying further south. Raspberry bushes are budding in Iowa and the maple sap is flowing early in Minnesota. In New England, skiers are driving to Canada to find snow cover and New Yorkers have been spotted in unfamiliar winter habitats - sitting at outdoor cafe tables.

The US economy is already reflecting the changes. Heating bills in northern cities have been halved, and blackouts have been triggered by increased use of air conditioners in the hotter summers. The migration of people from the colder northern states to the south has eased.

The biggest threat to normal life comes from rising sea levels, predicted to surge 10 feet worldwide this century. A few warmer-than-usual winters like this one could trigger the meltdown of Antarctic ice shelves, raising sea levels more quickly than anticipated, according to a study by University of Colorado scientists. The rate of ice loss in mountain glaciers from the Alps to the Andes has doubled since 1988. The snows of Kilimanjaro are almost gone.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of how menacing the process is can be found in the Maldives, the coral and sand atolls in the Indian Ocean where 270,000 people live just five feet above sea level. The land is literally disappearing under the feet of the natives - who perhaps recall only dimly now how President Bush senior promised their leaders he would never allow that to happen.

The US is vulnerable too to rising oceans. A North American Free Trade Agreement survey predicts massive economic disruption through sea-water flooding in south Florida and east Texas. Houston, the home base of President George W Bush is threatened with submergence in just decades.

All of which makes it all the more astonishing that the US administration's response to the coming catastrophe is to do virtually nothing. Last week, the US delivered its long-awaited alternative to the 1997 Kyoto agreement to reduce emissions of the industrial greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, that cause global warming.

The US refused to ratify Kyoto, arguing that enforced cuts would give too severe a shock to the economy and cost jobs. Any suspicions that its policy was dictated by the industry lobby have been reinforced by the new White House initiative. The industrial sector, which has used the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for two centuries, has been asked to clean up its act voluntarily.

With 4 per cent of the world's population, the US produces 25 per cent of all carbon monoxide gases, in contrast to countries like India that, with almost four times as many people, emits 3 per cent of emissions. The average American, driving a sports utility vehicle and air-conditioning 2,000 square feet, produces six tonnes of carbon dioxide, and an Indian 0.25 tonnes. This means that nothing much will happen without strong US action. But, instead of regulation, the Bush administration is offering $4.6 billion (€5.25 billion) in tax credits, a miniscule amount given the enormity of the threat. It is promoting the development of cleaner technologies and emissions-allowance trading. This would enable its industries to buy the right to produce emissions from another country that would then forgo that right, or it could pay a developing country to install renewable energy equipment.

Under the Bush plan, US output of greenhouse gases would in fact grow along with economic expansion rather than shrink. Emissions could increase by 1 per cent when the economy grows 3 per cent in a plan which mirrors the policies advocated by the Exxon petroleum company in the last two years.

The plan has been universally panned as hot air, timed to give Mr Bush a fig leaf on his trip to Asia. Newsweek said instead of representing "creative thinking" as Mr Bush boasted, it was "creative accounting".

"It's simply not enough," said Dutch Prime Minister Mr Wim Kok. Belgian Energy Minister Mr Olivier Deleuze said: "It's not very moral." It permitted "a continued increase in greenhouse gas emissions" in the US, said Ms Margaret Beckett, Britain's environment minister.

Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman said Mr Bush's policy was "mired in crude oil," and said he would launch Senate hearings next month to review the administration's environmental record.

The White House says that in 10 years the results will be examined and the programme may be made stricter. For some that's too far in the future. New York, where wetlands are shrinking and drought threatens, is already incorporating climate extremes into its planning process. And for the people of the Maldives, in 10 years they may be taking to the boats.