You're getting warmer

The Kyoto Accord began the race to halt global warming. On its 10th anniversary, why are we barely past the starting gate?


I remember so well the final morning hours of the Kyoto conference. The negotiations had gone on long past their scheduled evening close, and the convention center management was frantic — a trade show for children's clothing was about to begin, and every corner of the vast hall was still littered with the carcasses of the sleeping diplomats who had gathered in Japan to draw up the first global treaty to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But when word finally came that an agreement had been reached, people roused themselves with real enthusiasm — lots of backslapping and hugs.

A long decade after the first powerful warnings had sounded, it seemed that humans were finally rising to the greatest challenge we'd ever faced.

The only long face in the hall belonged to William O'Keefe, chairman of the Global Climate Coalition, otherwise known as the American coal, oil, and car lobby. He'd spent the week coordinating the resistance, working with Arab delegates and Russian industrialists to sabotage the emerging plan. And he'd failed. "It's in free fall now," he said, stricken. But then he straightened his shoulders and said, "I can't wait to get back to Washington, where we can get things under control."

I thought he was whistling past the graveyard. In fact, he knew far better than the rest of us what the future would hold. He knew it would be at least another decade before anything changed.


The important physical-world reality to remember about the 10 years after Kyoto is that they included the warmest years on record. All of the warmest years on record.

In that span of time we've come to understand that not only is the globe warming but we'd also dramatically underestimated the speed and the amount of that warming. By now the data from the planet outstrips the scientific predictions on an almost daily basis. Earlier this fall, for instance, the seasonal Arctic sea ice melt beat the old record — by mid-August. Then the ice kept melting for six more weeks, losing an area the size of California every week.

"Arctic Melt Unnerves the Experts," the headline in the New York Times reported. And the scientists were shaken by rapid changes in tundra permafrost systems, not to mention rainforest systems, temperate soil carbon-sequestration systems, and oceanic acidity systems.

Planetary climate change has gone from being a problem for our children to a problem for right about now, as evidenced by, oh, Hurricane Katrina, California wildfires, and epic droughts in the Southeast and Southwest. And that's just in the continental United States. Go to Australia sometime: it's gotten so dry there that native Aussie Rupert Murdoch recently announced his News Corp. empire is going carbon neutral.

The important political-world reality to remember about the 10 years after Kyoto is that we haven't done anything.

Oh, we've passed all kinds of interesting state and local laws, wonderful experiments that have begun to show just how much progress is possible. But in Washington DC, nothing. No laws at all. Until last year, when the GOP surrendered control of Congress, even the hearings were a joke, with "witnesses" like novelist Michael Crichton.

And as a result, our emissions have continued to increase. Worse, we've made not the slightest attempt to shift China and India away from using coal. Instead of making an all-out effort to provide the resources for them to go renewable, we've stood quietly by and watched from the sidelines as their energy trajectories shot out of control: these days the Chinese are opening a new coal-fired plant every week.

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