The US administration's political woes could provide an opportunity for those seeking a more substantive response to the challenge of global warming.
As the administration of US President George W Bush continues to defy international pressure on the need for urgent action to curb man-made climate change, two separate events over the past week — one on the scientific side, the second in the political area — suggest that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the administration to maintain a 'business as usual' stance.
They also indicate that a failure to act could become as heavy a political liability as the administration's sympathy for an energy industry plagued by accounting scandals. And this could itself provide a useful opportunity for those demanding the US to take a more positive attitude towards global warming.
The first event was the publication in Science of evidence that the glaciers in Alaska are melting at more than double the rate previously thought (see Alaska's role in sea-level rise vastly underestimated). Scientists at the University of Fairbanks in Alaska say that this rate has accelerated in the past seven to eight years as a result of global warming, and that the state's glaciers are now contributing twice as much to the rise in sea-levels worldwide as the Greenland ice sheet, the largest ice mass in the Western hemisphere.
The second was the signing by the governor of California, in the face of opposition from the automobile industry, of regulations restricting the sale of high consumption automobiles, in particular sport utility vehicles. This is the latest — and perhaps most dramatic — of moves by several individual US states to take action to curb the emission of greenhouse gases.
Both events could, in their own ways, be seen as somewhat opportunistic. There is no firm evidence linking the Alaskan situation to human activity. The new results merely confirm other evidence, such as the melting of the permafrost and the destruction of the state's spruce forests by insects, that Alaska is particularly sensitive to the current trends of global warming.
Similarly, few would doubt that the California governor's action has a political dimension to it. Last week, when a group of 11 State governors complained to the Republican White House about a "regulatory void" that was leading to an uneven patchwork of anti-global warming regulations across the country, critics were quick to point out that the governors concerned were all members of the Democratic Party.
Nevertheless both events make it more difficult for the administration to defend its current stance, either scientifically or politically. On the scientific front, there appears to be evidence that at least some senior officials in the Bush administration accept the view of the International Panel on Climate Change that there is a strong likelihood that global warming is caused by human activity. And it follows that they respect the implication of the need to act rapidly to mitigate the situation. This, for example, was the main thrust of a US government report submitted to the United Nations in June.
At the same, the intense spotlight thrown by the Enron affair on the Bush administration's close ties to the energy industry — and the widespread public distaste generated by some of the dubious accounting practices that have been exposed by this scrutiny — has created a weak spot in the administration's political armour that offers a significant opening to its critics.
At this stage, it would be unrealistic to expect, or even demand, that the United States should rejoin the Kyoto Protocol process, from which it opted out so provocatively last year. This would require a U-turn of such massive proportions as to be inconceivable.
In contrast, however, it is realistic to demand that the US administration commits itself to a course of action that could lead to a convergence several years down the road between its domestic policies on issues such as limiting greenhouse gas emissions, and those which may be agreed by signatories to the Kyoto Protocol. This, for example, is the strategy that is being pursued by some non-governmental organisations and other US pressure groups, aware that it may be the most realistic way to achieve their long-term goal: to achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
One spin-off from a move in this direction is that it could help to keep the Kyoto process alive. Despite repeated statements of optimism by negotiators, this outcome is far from being guaranteed. When both the European Union and Japan agreed to ratify the protocol early last month, its full coming into force (which requires ratification by countries responsible for 55 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions in 1990) seemed just around the corner.
Now with Australia blowing cold, Canada seeking to bring its energy exports into the equation (on the ground of its proximity to the United States), and Russia keen to exploit any loopholes that the Canadians can open up, the immediate prospects of achieving this are far less certain than some pretend.
All the more reason to keep the United States in the negotiating loop, even if the frame of reference is slightly different. It will, however, require strong political pressure on the White House; Bush has made it clear that even if he disapproves of some of the activities of his friends in the oil industry, he is not prepared to ditch them, at least not on this issue. But with a growing number of senior politicians within the Republican Party prompting him to do just that, it could soon prove to be a politically expedient move.
© SciDev.Net 2002