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THE VANISHING SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO

Scientists this month turned up the heat another notch on the global warming debate, adding warnings of widespread disaster to previous findings that human activity is changing climate even more quickly than first predicted. The price of inaction could be catastrophic.

Despite the warnings of 900 scientists gathered by the U.N.-sponsored International Panel on Climate Control, though, the world is likely to continue courting that catastrophe. Efforts to take even small steps toward curbing heat-trapping greenhouse gases have failed, and could fail again.

The panel's reports so far have linked global warming to human activity, predicted an average temperature increase of as much as 10.5 degrees over the next century and outlined the probable impacts. A third report next month will assess how nations can best adapt.

Governments, meanwhile, failed completely in an effort last year to reach accord on modest pollution-trimming goals set during an earlier environmental summit in Kyoto. They'll try again in Bonn this spring. The forecast isn't good.

Developed nations produce the most heat-trapping greenhouse gases, but developing nations would suffer the most from the predicted warming. It takes a global commitment, not a national-interest one, for rich countries to shoulder the costliest emission-control measures -- and there are valid objections that countries likely to become major future polluters, including China, still shoulder no burden at all.

Because America, Canada and Australia are reluctant to launch the pollution-limiting measures backed by Europeans, the focus for the moment remains on programs to offset industrial emissions by encouraging the preservation and growth of forests that soak up carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But clearly more needs to be done.

Global warming is real. The famed snows of Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro are shrinking and could vanish within 15 years. By 2025 Alpine glaciers will have 10 percent of the ice they had a century ago. Open water has been found near the North Pole and Antarctic ice is increasingly unstable.

This month's 1,000-page report foresees dramatic changes if the predicted warming continues: Waves of refugees from arid Africa to Europe, sea-level rises that inundate island nations and Bangladesh, violent storms along America's Atlantic coast, malaria zones extending north of Montreal, massive ecosystem changes and species extinctions, to name a few.

Some areas, including North America, actually may see expanded timber harvests and agricultural zones. But as Harvard scientist and panel co-chairman James McCarthy noted, "most of the Earth's people will be on the losing side."

Unlikely as it may be in the administration of a new president who campaigned to the contrary, the United States should take a leadership role, and not a foot-dragging one, in staving off a climate crisis. And part of that role should include a coherent energy policy that stresses conservation, and not just increased production of the fossil fuels that cause greenhouse gas emissions.

Although there is strong scientific consensus that this warming is man-made, some critics still place the blame on solar activity, natural ocean current cycles, proliferating "heat islands" around urban centers and other causes. A few deny any warming at all, and even predict impending cooling.

The voices of the few should not become excuses for the many. Science is speaking with an increasingly unified voice, and it should be heard. Smaller steps now are better and more affordable than emergency measures later -- and man-made pollution is the only factor we can address, anyway.

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