Dispatch #5: Kyoto
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Four years after this conference, it is 50 degrees in Montreal in December, which just experienced the warmest October and November on record, like much of eastern North America. Al Gore, the great white hope for the environment, is history at the moment, but he may rise again from the ashes. In any case, we scarcely heard a peep from him about global warming or anything else about the environment—his supposed signature issue--- during his incredibly lame and maladroit presidential campaign, and the Bush administration has pulled the plug on everything the Kyoto conference was trying to achieve, and on many of the environmental safeguards that were achieved during the Clinton and Gore years. The future of the planet is not looking good at all, with the possibility of world war diverting attention from our stewardship responsibilities. I wrote this piece for Vanity Fair, but it was lost in the spring Oscar and Hollywood  frenzy and killed that summer. 


      The choice of Kyoto, the ancient Japanese capital,  for the United Nations third conference on global warming last December was inspired. Its lovingly preserved twelve-hundred-year history underscored the theme of preservation, which was what the gathering was all about : trying to preserve the basic atmospheric conditions that enable life to exist on this planet.  Conditions that seem to be increasingly compromised by the belching into the air of billions of tons of carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants, car exhausts, industrial smokestacks, deforestation, and myriad other sources. The fact that Kyoto was nearly nuked in l945 (at the last moment the American Secretary of War, Harry Stimson, realizing its cultural importance,  switched the target to Hiroshima)— added  poignance. As if there was any need to be reminded of humanity’s destructiveness.

      Everyone who came— the  2,200 negotiators and officials from more than 150 countries, the  8,000 observors, members of environmental  ngo’s (non-governmental organizations),  and media people knew what was on the line here. (Everyone, that is, except the 800 paid industrial lobbyists  whose job was to derail the process and prevent an agreement from being reached. They were here to tell you that global warming is a nonevent, a leftist conspiracy to sabotage the American way of life.) The conference website laid it out succinctly :

        “More and more, we are realizing that the Industrial Revolution has changed forever the relationship between humanity and nature. There is real concern that by the middle of the next century human activities will have changed the basic conditions that have allowed life to thrive on earth. The giant asteroid that felled the dinosaurs threw huge clouds of dust into the air, but we are causing something just as profound if more subtle. We have changed, and we continue to change, the balance of gases that form the atmosphere....  If current predictions prove correct, the climatic changes over the coming century will be larger than any since the dawn of human civilization.”

       Over the last 150 years human activities have raised the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 25%, from 280 parts per million to 360. In the last hundred years the world’s mean temperature has risen by about one degree Fahrenheit (all temperatures in this piece are Fahrenheit). The vast majority of atmospheric scientists suspect that  the two are connected, that the scenario predicted by the Swedish chemist Svent Arrhenius in l896 is coming to pass. The earth’s climate  is driven by the continuous flow of energy from the sun, which arrives mainly in the form of visible light. About 30% of this energy is immediately scattered back into space. Most of the rest filters down through the atmosphere, warms the earth’s surface, and is sent back out into space in the form of infrared radiation. This is the heat thrown off by an electric grill before its bars begin to glow red. Most of this infrared radiation is trapped by gases in the atmosphere : water vapor, CO2, ozone, methane, nitrous oxide, and the three chlorofluorocarbons (cfc’s). Although these gases together make up less than 1% of the atmosphere, they are enough to cause a so-called “greenhouse effect” that keeps the planet about 48 degrees warmer than it would otherwise be. It is this that permits life as we know it to exist.

        Arrhenius predicted that the world’s temperature would rise by 6 ½  to 9 ½  degrees when the atmospheric carbon doubles due to the burning of fossil fuels. Most scientists now believe that doubling will happen around the middle of the next century, and will cause a rise of 2 to 6 degrees— lower than Arrhenius’ numbers, but calamitous nonetheless. (By comparison, the planet was only 5 to 9 degrees colder in the depths of the last ice age.)  This will cause an environmental Armageddon : massive extinctions,  drowning of islands and coastlines  and the displacement of millions as polar ice melts and sea level rises; desertification of the midcontinental agricultural zones,  rampant spread of  epidemic diseases, as  extreme weather events— deluges, floods, heat waves, droughts, blizzards, icestorms,   hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones, tornados, et al— escalate in violence and frequency. To various extents, these things are already happening.


      During the downtimes at the huge, modern convention complex, set in the leafless brown foothills, I wandered around Kyoto. Some of its  hundreds of temples and gardens date to the previous millenium, and are steeped in Shinto nature worship, with carp flopping in forest  pools and every branch and  rock, and burble just so; others are interactive Zen gardens, where you  listen for the sound of one hand clapping. Rising all around them are the tacky little highrises of  the modern city. In last hundred years Japan has embraced modern Western materialism with a vengeance, becoming one of  the greatest consumers of the world’s natural resources, particularly fish and timber. The 126 million Japanese go through two billion waribashi, or throwaway chopsticks, a year. The wood comes from the whitest, purest-looking center part of aspens from Alberta, Canada.  80% of the tree is wasted. Mitsubishi is the big force in the waribashi business.

        What happened to the Japanese reverence for nature ?  I asked a young Kyoto law student who was part of a group of  environmental activists. Did population growth erode traditional values ? “We Japanese revere beauty, but we have no concept of ugliness,” he offered. More light was shed by an interview in the Kyoto Visitors Guide with the Honorable Kajita Shinsho, the head priest of the environmentally-oriented Honen-In Temple. According to Shinsho, the Japanese began to separate themselves from nature in  the Meiji era (1868-). “Since the human population is increasing, if we do not reduce our personal, mostly desire-driven, energy demands, then we will have an increasingly negative effect,” the holy man warned.. “In regards to greenhouse gas emissions, it would seem that the Americans are behaving idiotically, but the Americans seem to only think of whether their present economic picture will be better or worse.” His final pearl  : “People have lost the power to imagine or realize truly the damage that goes on outside their field of vision when they buy things.”

     Now the Japanese bubble economy, based largely on bank loans for inflated real estate, was about to burst.  Bubbles were much in evidence during the ten-day congress : the European bubble, comprised of the countries of the European Union, was proposing to reduce its collective CO2 emissions to 15% below their  l990 levels by 2005, which made the United States look like complete slackers. The American proposal was only to return to l990 levels between 2008 and 2012, and the U.S. is the major culprit, responsible for 25% of the human emissions. Paleoclimatologists were “retrodicting” future climate trends from bubbles of co2 and methane in ice cores from glaciers in Greenland and Anatarctica, Bolivia and Tibet.

       Japan, the United States, and Australia were  the three countries most off target from the treaty the 36 industrialized countries had signed at the first conference in  l992 Their l996 emissions were, respectively, 9.6, 8.8, and 12.5 %  above l990 levels, which every had agreed to return to by 2000. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, 1997 turning out to be the warmest year in Japan’s— and the world’s—  history. Flying in for the conference, I had caught a glimpse of Mt. Fuji from the plane window. There seemed to be less snow on its  slopes than I could recall ever seeing in pictures. The magnificent lone volcano  looked like melting ice cream cone. This was, of course,  a subjective, “anecdotal” impression that might not hold up under scientific scrutiny.  But the retreat of other glaciers around the world is well-documented. The glaciers on Mount Kenya are 40% smaller than they were in l963. Three glaciers in Venezuela that were good-sized in l972 have disappeared altogether.  Massive melting over the last thirty years has been recorded for the Sperry and Grinnell glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Many climatologists regard the fast-receding glaciers as the loudest “smoking gun,” the clearest early sign that global warming is here.


      From the moment chairman Raul Estrada of Argentina gavelled the conference to order  on the morning of Monday, December 1st,  there was grand, Wagnerian drama to the event..  The negotiators knew that if they didn’t come out  with a treaty that would curb the emissions of  the Annex One (the industrialized) countries, who are collectively responsible for 75% of the problem, posterity would never forgive them. And so they argued and haggled late into the night in closed sessions in the many rooms of great main conference hall, trying to hammer out the bottom line.  Everyone was working on little sleep. The biological clocks of most were still set to halfway around the world. William K. Stevens caught the excitement in the Times : “Rarely, if ever, has humanity made an attempt like this to exercise deliberate, collective foresight on a risk whose full impact is unclear and will not be felt for decades.” This time the energy was all of us— the modern energy and consumer grid that has spread it seductive tentacles almost everywhere, what Lewis Mumford called the Megamachine, Allen Ginsberg Moloch, the Rastafarians Babylon.  Many scientists were convinced that doubling was already unavoidable, no matter what was accomplished here. In a simile that had become popular at the preliminary talks in Bonn a month earlier, preventing doubling was like “trying to turn a supertanker in a sea of syrup.” 

       “Every country has an excuse for doing nothing,”  John Cinq Mars, head of the Pollution Prevention and Control Division of  the OECD (the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, a think tank for the 27 industrialized countries that signed the Marshal Plan in l947), told me. “Canada’s is we’re so big and it’s so cold. Australia’s is its near-total dependence on coal. New Zealand’s is its  sheep.” Sixty million of them, sixteen for every human, which collectively huge amounts of  methane, or meethane as the Kiwis pronounce it. Methane has twenty times the warming potency of carbon dioxide and accounts for 20% of the greenhouse effect, and it has already doubled. Contrary to what you might think, most the meethane comes out of the sheeps’ mouths, through burping and regurgitation.

         “Russia and Ukraine have shown a big drop in their emissions because their economies are so bad and industrial production has ground to a halt,” Cinq Mars continued. “So has Germany because it has shut down its incredibly dirty and  inefficient East German plants.  So has England since Margaret Thatcher switched the country from coal to natural gas mainly for political reasons, to break the unions; the environmental dividends are largely coincidental. [This was why the “European bubble” was able to propose its 15% reduction.]   The United States is worried that the cost of compliance to industry will be so great that it will relocate abroad. China’s and India’s excuse is you Americans got where you are by burning incredible amounts of cheap energy, now you just want to keep us down.  [As one Chinese delegate complained, “You want to keep riding around two people in a car while preventing us from riding  in buses.” ].”

       The environmentalists  were here in force, realizing that global warming is the (in William K. Stevens’ adjective) overarching environmental issue for the planet, the one that impinges on all the others— population, biodiversity, the deplorable state of the oceans.  They didn’t  want  this historic opportunity to do something about it to be blown, and there needed to be a strong green presence to offset the power lobby. I go back with some of these activists twenty years. Maybe in the early days of the environmental movement some of them were a little full of themselves, congratulating themselves for being  We Who See What is Happening, but that has long since been replaced by the deep sadness,  helplessness and endemic depression that eventually overcomes anyone who Sees What is Happening on a global scale, by what might be called doom fatigue, a cousin of the disaster fatigue that afflicts  humanitarian aid workers in places like Ethiopia and Rwanda. “We’re really fucking up this piece of real estate,”  Elliot Norse, a marine conservation biologist, told me, and seeing it happen,  badgering the politicians,  keeping the pressure on, and the minute you let up it springs back to where it was, knowing that your hardwon victories are too little too late, has to get to you. 

        It was the third time this fall I’d run into  David Suzuki, Canada’s great environmental samurai, its David Attenborough, whose nature show airs on CBC on Thursday evenings, doing his dog and pony show at scientific meetings, laying out the horrors, trying to get people to See What is Happening. In September, we had been among the scientists, religious leaders, and writers invited to cruise the horribly degraded and nearly dead  Black Sea  by the Ecumenical Patriarch of the  Orthodox church, Bartholomew I.  The patriarch had begun to see the Apocalypse  in  environmental terms, as a failure of planetary stewardship, and was mounting a last-ditch effort to save what was left of the creation. The next month  I had run into Suzuki at a conference on biodiversity put on by the National Academy of Science in Washington, an incredibly depressing affair at which the rate  the planet is going down the tubes was clearly spelled out by many of the world’s leading natural scientists. There are a lot of meetings like this these days. 

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