"The U.S. is stockpiling an environmental debt to the world which will have terrible consequences on the lives of millions, from El Nino in Latin America to famines in the Horn of Africa and floods in Bangladesh. A few deaths in Manhattan might drive this point home."
At first glance, this comment about the outbreak of St. Louis encephalitis in New York City, printed this week in a mainstream British newspaper, the Guardian, seems astonishingly callous. Three people have already died from the outbreak of mosquito-borne disease, which has never appeared so far north before, and over 60 more suspected cases have been identified. How can foreigners view these deaths as a useful political lesson?
The thing is, the foreigners are desperate. Nothing they have said in the past 10 years has had any impact on the American addiction to lavish energy consumption, and the consequent huge production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
As global warming gathers speed, thousands of others have been dying, mainly as a result of more extreme weather: 10,000 in the century's biggest hurricane in Honduras, 3,000 in northern India's worst heat wave in half a century, 2,500 drowned in China's worst floods in 44 years. But it has become clear that there will be no political support in the U.S. for cutting greenhouse gas emissions until Americans themselves are suffering from the consequences.
The appearance of St. Louis encephalitis in New York City is exactly that sort of consequence, as are the cases of malaria caught from local mosquitoes that have turned up in the city in recent weeks. Tropical diseases coming north is global warming in action, and the foreigners are hoping that it might at last get the donkey's attention.
In 1990, an international panel of scientists concluded that carbon dioxide emissions needed to be reduced by 60 percent in order to stabilize the earth's climate at a manageable temperature. Eight years later, after endless diplomatic squabbling, the world's 180 countries set a target of cutting back to 6 percent (not 60 percent) below the 1990 level of emissions by the year 2012.
That would not slow the warming much even if it were fully implemented -- but the U.S. also insisted that the deal include a system of trading emission credits. In effect, any country that cut emissions by more than 6 percent could treat its extra savings as "credits" and sell them to other countries that were failing to meet the agreed cuts. What the American negotiators had in mind, of course, was the fact that economic collapse in the former Soviet bloc had already reduced its emissions by far more than 6 percent. If your goal were really to slow global warming, you would treat this as a windfall not to be squandered. If your goal was to evade controls, however, you would see it as a golden opportunity to keep on pumping out the greenhouse gases by buying up the old Eastern Bloc's savings.
The American strategy is turning out to be a brilliant success, in its own short-sighted terms. The precise rules for trading emission credits are being negotiated now, to be put to a summit next year, but there will probably be enough "savings" available to let the U.S. forget about cuts entirely. It will just buy up emission credits from Eastern Europe.
If the U.S. gets away with this, and if the economies of Third-World countries exempt from emission controls grow well in the next decade, then global carbon emissions in 2010 will be 39 percent higher than in 1990. This is a formula for disaster, especially since there is a 30-year lag before climate change catches up with extra greenhouse gases in the atmosphere: the warming we are suffering now is because of the emissions prior to 1968.
American voters will certainly get the message about global warming when crop yields fall in the Midwest and droughts become the norm on the East Coast, but by then it will be a bit late in the day to do anything about it. If the spread north of tropical diseases (Florida is already spending $100 million a year on malaria control) helps to accelerate the awakening, then it is at worst a mixed curse.
GWYNNE DYER is a London-based journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.