In the recent story appearing in The Herald's Viewpoint section, "Big Coal," an energy expert states: "Polar bears are doomed...At the end of this century the Arctic ice cap will be gone. That means a lot of water rising, not by inches but meters." This assertion about sea level rise is incorrect, because the ice cap floats on the Arctic Ocean. Floating ice displaces its own weight in water, per Archimedes' Principle, and thus, if all this ice melted today, sea level would not change. Ice at the South Pole is a different matter because it rests on land, but the reference to polar bears, which do not inhabit the Antarctic, suggests the error was conceptual, not just typographical.
The article further states that "in China, there are plans for a coal-fired power plant to go online nearly every week." This understates the magnitude of the China problem. According to the U.S. Congress Select Committee on Global Warming, in China, 550 new coal power plants are currently being built, coming online at the rate of about two new plants per week."
China mines and burns twice as much coal as the United States (2.4 billion tons vs. 1.2 billion tons), and per the Wall Street Journal, "China is set to surpass the U.S. as the world's top emitter of greenhouse gases this year." Under terms of the Kyoto Protocol, however, China is classified as a "developing country" and exempt from any limitations on greenhouse gas production.
As negotiations in Kyoto were getting under way in 1997, the U.S. Senate wisely passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution by a 95-0 vote, stating that the United States should not be a party to any protocol that did not include binding limits on countries such as China and India, because such an agreement would put us at a competitive disadvantage. Based on this resolution, the Clinton Administration never submitted the treaty to the Senate for ratification.
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Had the treaty been embraced by the U.S., and every provision honored, how much difference would it have made? Very little, because our cuts would be overshadowed by rapidly increasing production in China and India.
Under terms of the Kyoto Treaty, our industries would be forced to adopt expensive measures to curtail CO2 production, to meet limits from which competitors in Asia were exempt. A cheaper solution for many companies would be purchasing carbon credits to "offset" their emissions. Who would have these credits for sale? Russia would have lots, because their emission target was set 30 percent above their current production. The bottom line: Russia would continue to pollute with impunity, and we would pay them for the right to continue to release our greenhouse gasses.
Cost is too high
What Kyoto has demonstrated is that the world community is not going to come together and fix this problem because the cost is too high and benefits are speculative and far in the future. Levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses will be increasing for decades to come. I'm not advocating this, just stating fact. The United Nations International Panel on Climate Change projects average global temperatures will climb and the sea level will rise by 3 to 30 inches during the next century.
What will these changes mean for mankind? People will adapt, just as they have for millennia. Had the Kyoto conference been held 11,500 years ago, as the ice age was ending, delegates from Europe and Asia could have walked, because Japan was connected to the mainland. The American delegates could have walked also, over a land bridge linking North America to Asia. We can't walk today because global warming ended the ice age, melted an ice sheet thousands of feet thick, covering places such as Chicago and New York, and raised the sea level over 400 feet. Human beings witnessed this global warming, but were in no way responsible for it.
Sea level rose rapidly during the first 5,000 years, more slowly recently, but overall at an average rate of 3.5 feet per century. Ironically, 3.5 feet is just a bit more than the highest U.N. panel forecast for sea level rise in the coming century. The notion that the earth's climate has been stable and temperate forever, while widely held, is entirely wrong. For millions of years, drastic climate fluctuations have been the norm, triggered by subtle variations in the orbit of the earth around the sun, and other natural phenomena
How will we adapt?
How will humans adapt to a warmer future? History suggests we'll do just fine, and much better than to a colder one. From 800 AD to 1300 AD, Europe experienced what is now termed the "Medieval Warm Period," when temperatures were a few degrees warmer than today. Growing seasons lengthened and more land became suitable for cultivation, resulting in bountiful harvests and a surging population. Wine grapes thrived in England, and the Vikings colonized a place they named "Greenland" because it was green.
From 1300 to 1850, Europe experienced a period of colder weather called the "Little Ice Age." The shortened growing season led to famines and bread riots. Undernourished Europeans were defenseless against a series of plagues that wiped out 40 percent of the population. Greenland became frozen and snow-bound, and with agriculture unsustainable, Viking colonies died out.
Without question, a changing climate would be disruptive. Suffering most would be people in poor, low lying countries, close to the equator. But warming would produce winners as well as losers. Countries such as Canada and Russia would benefit from more temperate weather, more arable land and a longer growing season.
We can't predict what challenges our descendents will confront, any more than people 100 years ago could have predicted nuclear weapons or, for that matter, global warming. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said 2,500 years ago, "There is nothing permanent except change."
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