Burke’s Law XVI: Taking Heat Over Global Warming


By Elizabeth Burke
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

The U.N. Climate Change Conference will be held in Copenhagen from Dec. 7 through Dec. 19. There will be about 180 countries represented, thousands of attendees and one debate: Is climate change manmade or a natural part of our planet’s life? I believe the billions of people populating our planet must have some impact on its evolution. But there are always two sides and I wanted to explore the divide.

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Per Wikipedia (forgive me for using this, but in this case it’s a decent choice), the Kyoto Protocol is a protocol to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC or FCCC), aimed at combating global warming. Currently, the protocol is the only agreement between countries to combat climate change, by lowering the greenhouse gases generated by industrial nations. In 2001, President Bush withdrew the U.S. from the protocol without submitting it to Congress for ratification. We weren’t alone, joining such countries as India and China in withdrawing from the treaty. The Bush administration believed the protocol to be fundamentally flawed, failing to include binding targets and timetables for both developing and industrialized nations. In their view, participation in Kyoto would result in serious harm to the American economy.

For the Bush Administration, however, withdrawal also meant no alternative action on climate change, either. In life, when one ignores a serious problem, doing nothing usually only exacerbates the problem. Shutting one’s eyes does not make a problem go away, unless you’re 3 years old.

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To be fair, even scientists argue over how much the last 150 years of industrialization has caused global warming. As a resident of the Northeast, heading into another frigid, unpleasant, snowy winter, the idea of anything warming makes me happy. But I digress: The science of climate change is hotly debated both by scientists and by lay people trying to act like scientists. I put myself in the lay category — my background lies in the “science” of why salt is needed to bake a cake. Personally, I never add it and my cakes are delicious. Liz 1, Science 0.

Some non-scientist scientists believe, however, that the earth hasn’t warmed. That, in fact, man has had no direct impact on the climate and that the Earth naturally undergoes periods of warming and cooling. These non-scientist scientists are fond of phrases issued by scientists that fit their agenda. For example:

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…there is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate.

These same non-scientist scientists similarly dispute the loss of coastlines and polar caps.

Now, there is no dispute that there have been huge fluctuations in the Earth’s temperature throughout its existence. The question is the cause. On the disputational side is the fact that ours is a young planet and may still be undergoing natural fluctuations in temperature. Geologists and scientists studying the Earth have learned, for example, that since the beginning of its existence, there have been numerous ice ages:

The stupendous ice sheets had slowly ground south and retreated, time and again. The series of glacial periods had alternated with times of warmer climate, each cycle lasting many tens of thousands of years. German geologists, meticulously studying the scars left by ancient rivers on what were now hillsides in the Alps, worked out a scheme of four major cycles.

You can even find proof of ancient climate shifts when you peer, as I did years ago, into the Grand Canyon. That giant rip into Earth is chock-full of scientific data on our planet’s early life — and more recent life.

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So we agree on this much: the Earth cools, warms, cools, warms, on and on. It’s happening now, even as I sit here writing this in weather that is like Indian summer. Yesterday was warm, today a bit cooler, tomorrow — who knows?

But coming back to something I said earlier, I still don’t believe 150 years of industrialization, explosive population growth and the advent cars, factories and animal methane (ask Australian sheep about that) has had no impact on the climate whatsoever.

One only has to observe the melting of the polar ice caps to see how the world’s actions are affecting the most frozen of all places on Earth. Here is the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC):

Average temperatures in the Arctic region are rising twice as fast as they are elsewhere in the world. Arctic ice is getting thinner, melting and rupturing. For example, the largest single block of ice in the Arctic, the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, had been around for 3,000 years before it started cracking in 2000. Within two years it had split all the way through and is now breaking into pieces

What is causing this?

Personally, I maintain it is CO2 emissions — the burning of fossil fuels that create a shield, trapping greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. This is entirely a manmade phenomena. The Australian sheep, I admit, are on their own.

Here is a quote from a website that gives me chills:

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The real turning point came during the 1980s. Researchers at the Polar Plateau in Vostok, East Antarctica, drilled thousands of miles into a glacier and extracted an ice core that dated back more than one hundred thousand years. By analyzing air bubbles trapped in the ice, the scientists were able to confirm that carbon dioxide levels had risen steadily since the mid-1700s. At that point, more scientists began to pay attention.

Over the following years, measurements continued to be taken at the Mauna Loa Observatory, and carbon dioxide levels showed steady increases each year. By the year 2000, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide had risen to more than 368 ppm-a 17 percent jump from the 1950s when the first measurements were taken. These findings meant that not only were CO 2 levels rising, they were rising fast.

A panel of U.N. scientists has recommended that developed countries make emissions cuts of between 25 percent and 40 percent by 2020 to avoid a catastrophic rise in sea levels, harsher storms, droughts and other climate disruptions. The European Union has vowed to slash its emissions by 20 percent by 2020 and to increase that to 30 percent if other regions also agree to major reductions. Russia and Japan are promising a 25 percent cut over the same period. The U.S. is considering a far smaller cut: 17 percent from 2005 levels or about 3.5 percent from 1990.

Clearly, for the U.S., this is far from enough. Sure, our offer does acknowledge there is a problem. But the offer is weak, as if to suggest capitulation to the naysayers. This will certainly be part of the debate, too.

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Meantime, there is one other thing I think almost all of us can agree upon: We need fuel, and new, clean sources of energy. Wind, nuclear, solar, hydro, geothermal — all are renewable energy sources that are not only nearly infinite, but cannot be outsourced. Which is to say that idea of simply drilling for oil in the U.S. seems outdated, ignorant of the fact that even if we, as the Republicans say, “Drill, baby, drill,” only a limited quantity of oil will come available to us, and even then it won’t come on line for seven to 10 years. In other words, “Drill, baby, drill” is a backward-looking, backward-thinking idea with little or no place in this challenging new century. We need to think forward, creating American jobs and weaning ourselves off the oil reserves of countries who lord our petrodollars over foreign policy. When will the time come to put away disagreements on climate change, be they fact or fiction, and start preparing the nation — and the world — for a cleaner, safer way of life?

Elizabeth Burke, a New York-based actor, has been involved in politics since her first campaign at age 16. Burke’s Law does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.