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Kyoto Fried Chicken

03.02.2005 | ENVIRONMENT

Let's hope Earth never gets attacked by flesh-eating Martians. By the time the governments of the world mounted a counter-attack, we'd all be getting force-bred in Martian factory farms, wondering why the fat kids keep getting dragged away.

No, I wouldn't bet on the Independence Day scenario of instant global solidarity and quick, coordinated action. Arab pilots won't be hugging Israeli pilots before doing intergalactic battle. More likely humanity's response would resemble the climate-change (in)action movie, The Day After Tomorrow. The Martians could be halfway done vaporizing world capitals in alphabetical order, and the Saudi U.N. rep would raise his hand and suggest we offer the green guys development rights in the Caspian. The U.S. rep would balk at this, and instead threaten sanctions against the Martians. The back and forth would go on until New York disappeared with a powerful zap from above.

Substitute Martians for climate change--which is essentially what Roland Emmerich, who made both Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, did--and you have a pretty good picture of reality, 2005. Consider the global-warming timeline.

As early as 1898, Swedish scientists had published papers describing how burning fossil fuels could lead to a greenhouse effect. In 1955, American scientist Charles Keeling discovered that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were up 10 percent since the Industrial Revolution and rising (the number is now 30 percent and rising faster). More than three decades of alarm bells went off in university research centers before global warming finally broke into the public discussion in the late 80s. When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced without much qualification in 1995 that warming was well underway and posed a severe short- and medium-term threat, it took another two years to convene the conference that resulted in the Kyoto protocol, the first binding emissions treaty.

It went into effect just last month.

Between Kyoto's drafting and last week, seven years passed. Not just any seven years, but seven of the hottest years on record, filled with more record-breaking heat waves, floods and droughts than can be listed here.

During this time--as we got used to fucked-up weather and tried to avoid pondering its implications--Kyoto's timid goals became even more useless than they were in 1997. At the time of Kyoto's drafting, climate scientists warned that it would take emissions cuts of, at the very least, 20 percent below 1990 levels to make a meaningful dent in the warming trend. Kyoto called for six to 12 percent.

With the 20 percent figure widely panned as impractical, and with the fossil-fuel lobby still fighting a shockingly effective rear-guard battle against science, climate warriors were forced to defend the treaty as a necessary first step, a symbol of the world's ability and resolve to act. It was assumed that the early targets would be met and built upon with American leadership. Al Gore was expected to assume the presidency in 2000. There was hope. Putting the treaty into effect in 1997 would have been something to celebrate.

Not anymore. Although global greenhouse emissions continued to soar after 1997, Kyoto's goals are the same ones announced seven years ago. Many of the treaty's most important and vigorous supporters, such as Japan, are unlikely to meet even these. As for American leadership, not only does the U.S. remain outside the treaty, we somehow ended up with a White House that considers coal an alternative fuel.

The proper response to Kyoto's much-belated first breath is not celebration, but protest. Loud, angry, desperate protest. The 35 Greenpeace activists who marked Kyoto by shutting down the floor of the International Petroleum Exchange in London have the right idea. This March, the antiwar movement will mark the second anniversary of the Iraq invasion with demonstrations around the world. Greens should be doing the same.

The treaty's kick-in represents no new forward momentum at all. What tipped the scales was Russia's reluctant recognition, after years of EU arm-twisting, that its rump industrial base could be translated into profit under the Kyoto's carbon credit scheme (a loophole that allows rich countries to buy their way out of their target cuts). The Russians have been vocal about wishing they were still strong enough to spit at the treaty like their soul brothers in the White House. One Kremlin economist even called Kyoto an "economic Auschwitz."

Which raises the question of what Hitler would have thought about Earth's slow-motion heat holocaust. No doubt he would have been surprised to see black-soil rich Ukraine, the Third Reich's would-be breadbasket, forced to import wheat after 2003's record-breaking late-summer heat-wave. The heat hit more than just Ukrainian wheat, of course: 35,000 people died in eight European countries, with shrunken harvests reported in every nation between France and Russia.

The result was the second straight year in which the world harvest failed to match demand. In 2002, world agricultural output fell 89 million tons below consumption; in 2003, that number grew to 94 million tons, or five percent of what the earth's growing population consumed. To make up the shortfall, global reserve stocks were tapped. Although last year's harvest saw a rebound, rising consumption ate it all up, leaving reserves at their lowest point in 30 years.

As Lester R. Brown explains in Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures (just out on W.W. Norton), we'd better reacquaint ourselves with the idea of scarcity. After 50 years of steadily increasing food production, the trend has stopped and is now reversing. Overdevelopment, overpopulation and global warming are conspiring to make the 21st century one in which water and grain join oil as a source of conflict.

Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, summarizes a few new studies that deserve our focused attention. The first, conducted by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, found that for every one-degree Celsius rise in temperature, rice harvests fall by 10 percent. This conclusion is supported by another study by the International Rice Research Institute.

Another study, conducted by U.S. researchers David Lobell and Gregory Asner, found that the same rise in temperature results in a 17 percent drop in corn and soybean yields.

Now do some basic math. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that average temperatures will rise between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius in the 21st century; this on top of last century's roughly one-degree rise. Ignoring trend lines that show the upper end of this estimate as becoming more likely, let's predict a rise of three degrees. That translates to a drop in the global rice harvest of 30 percent; for corn and soybean harvests, 51 percent. Throw in the effects of falling water tables and melting ice cover--which will lower and possibly kill major rivers now used for irrigation and drinking--and it doesn't take Kenny Kingston to imagine the havoc climate change will wreak on international politics in the coming decades.

As this picture comes into sharper focus, Kyoto returns from the dead after seven wasted years, with its tiny balls missing. Who knew rearranging a few deck chairs could take so long?

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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