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EIGHT YEARS LOST

From The Bennington Banner, Dec. 27, 2007

Huge flying bats are dropping dead of heat exhaustion in Australia. Butterflies are going extinct in the Alps. Glaciers are melting in southern Chile. Farmers around the world are trying to cope with unpredictable fluctuations in temperature and precipitation.

A tropical disease called chikungunya hit the northern Italian town of Castiglione Di Cervia in August. Warmer conditions have made it possible for an insect called the tiger mosquito to thrive north of the tropics, and swarms of them spread the first known epidemic of a tropical disease in a developed European country.

As others have noted, scientists are usually the people who advise caution and note ambiguity before scientific data. However, when it comes to global warming — and the role of human activity in causing it — scientists are raising alarms that some politicians and corporate interests are choosing to downplay or ignore.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, the world’s average surface temperature has risen 1.33 degrees Fahrenheit since the start of the 20th century.    That may seem small, but in the context of historical shifts in temperature, scientists find it alarming.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of hundreds of scientists, reported recently that average temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere “during the second half of the 20th century were very likely higher than during any 50-year period in the last 500 years and likely the highest in at least the past 1,300 years.”

The situation calls for the leadership of the world’s greatest nation, but the world is going to have to wait at least another year, until the end of the Bush Administration. These recent developments are typical:

• The U.S. delegation at the recent conference in Bali Indonesia to begin work on a new climate treaty refused to offer a commitment to reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases, giving nations like China little incentive to get serious about their own growing emissions.

• In the new energy law approved by Congress and signed by the president last week, the Senate killed two provisions opposed by the White House and automakers. One would have required utilities to generate an increasing amount of their power from renewable sources. The other would have taken back about $12 billion in tax breaks granted to oil companies and used the money instead to develop cleaner fuels and new energy technologies.

• In 2004 California proposed emission standards that would have forced car companies to cut greenhouse    gases by 30 percent in new cars and light trucks by 2016, with reductions starting with 2009 model vehicles. California applied to the Environmental Protection Agency for a waiver under the Clean Air Act to impose the rules. The state had to sue the federal government to even get a decision, and when after three years the decision came this month, the answer was an unprecedented “no.” Offering specious explanations for the denial, the EPA thwarted the will not only of California, but of 17 other states that wanted to impose the same rules.

By January 2008, the U.S. will have lost eight years that could have been used to develop new energy sources and reduce dependence on Middle Eastern oil, eight years when it could have been providing leadership on climate change.

Whether a future administration can make up for lost time is, so to speak, the $12 billion question.