Saturday, February 03, 2007

As the planet burns, it's no time to fiddle


AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France -- As soon as we arrived in this city of sunshine and natural beauty --and weeks before international climate scientists met in Paris to issue dire warnings about the state of global warming -- the topic began to crop up frequently in daily conversation.

At our international language school, IS Aix-en-Provence, a Dutch classmate told us that when she was a child in Amsterdam, she skated each winter on the city's ice-covered canals. For the last seven years, those canals have never frozen enough to allow skating, she said.

In the French alps, about 20 miles northwest of Briancon, near the Italian border, an international French businessman we know took us to a mountain village with a stunning view of a still substantial glacier. "Each year it gets smaller," he lamented.

And at IS, which draws adult students from around the world, our teachers several times introduced environmental topics into the daily lesson as we struggled to simply make ourselves understood. The school's director of curriculum, a slight, thoughtful man with a perpetually furrowed brow and the hint of a goatee, handed us the transcript of a radio show about "the challenge for the earth," TV commentator Nicolas Hulot's call for action, personal and communal, to reduce global warming (in French, known as rechauffement de planetaire).

Are you an "ecocitoyen (a citizen of the environment)?" our teacher asked us each.

Though our experience has fallen far short of a scientific sample, Europeans, it seems, take quite seriously an issue that despite Al Gore’s best efforts, too many Americans have treated as if it’s a boutique item on the shelves of political policy-making.

Granted, after Gore’s Academy Award nominated movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," and, now, after scientists meeting in France this week announced in overwhelming consensus that human activity has not only caused the warming of the planet but will continue to do so for centuries, global warming seems to remain truly esoteric only to some diehards in the Bush Administration.

To members of the U.S. and international scientific communities, the only questions are how dramatically and how fast the climate will change, not whether it will. Still, in a country other than the U.S., the energy secretary likely would be met with cries of outrage if he said what the International Herald Tribune reported U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman did. His answer to the international report issued in Paris was a shrug – and a lie.

"We are a small contributor when you look at the rest of the world," Bodman said of U.S. contributions to greenhouse gases. In fact, the United States, according to the World Resources Institute, remains the world's largest consumer of combined fossil fuels, the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions, consuming more, for example, than all member nations of the European Union combined.

On this issue, however, Bush Administration bashing is too easy; there's plenty of blame to go around. Too many American journalists and politicians alike seem to consider global warming a far less newsworthy or important topic than Iraq or Iran or bird flu or, for that matter, endless speculation about who just might be leading the race for a presidential election that is still two years away. (In sports terms, this is a little like starting to worry who will win game seven of the World Series during spring training when your team has no first basemen and two starters with bum arms.)

Though the French are far from perfect on the issue themselves -- the British and Germans, for example, have reduced their emissions over the last 14 years by more than 10 percent while French emissions are down a mere 1 percent, the Associated Press reports -- their growing awareness can be measured in the importance of global warming in this year's French presidential race. Both leading candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy and his socialist rival Segolene Royal have joined 500,000 countrymen in signing Hulot's pact for the environment, according to the AP. And both have pledged to make global warming their top environmental priority.

Certainly the French drive smaller cars than Americans (though a friend told us in the mountains that the numbers of SUV's are growing along with the arrogance of their drivers). They also are more conscious of running water or wasting resources; our landlady, for example, only heats our water from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., forcing us to conserve if we expect to draw even warm water from the tap for the dinner dishes. But in other ways, French environmental laws seem behind the curve. The smell and smoke of fires often greet us as we walk the two miles to town each morning as workmen at construction sites burn wood and garbage in open fires, something long banned in the United States.

Judging from the grim report issued in Paris this week, it's time for all of us -- French, Americans, Chinese, Russians, Indians, and others -- to do better, to take seriously, personally and as citizens, the challenges of global warming. The price of a shrug is too high, not only for future generations but for all of those today living along coastlines or in areas vulnerable to floods or storms expected to worsen as the planet heats up.

Another way of putting it, is that today, good environmental policy is once again proving to be good business policy as well – most certainly, for the insurance industry and the tourist industry but ultimately for any industry interested in some level of predictability and protection from climate extremes.

This isn't a time to fiddle while not just Rome -- but the entire planet --slowly burns.

That's something both the Bush Administration. and his Democratic Party detractors alike need to hear loud and clear. Hear, and then act on.


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