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George F. Will on the changing climate for a global warming treaty

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By George F. Will
Sunday, November 8, 2009

Intelligent people agree that, absent immediate radical action regarding global warming, the human race is sunk. That is a tautology because those who do not agree are, definitionally, unintelligent. Britain's intelligent prime minister, Gordon Brown, gives scary precision to the word "immediate." By his reckoning, humanity now has about 30 days to save itself. He says that unless a decisive agreement is reached at the 192-nation summit on climate change that opens Dec. 7 in Copenhagen, all is lost.

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So, all is lost. The chances of a comprehensive and binding treaty are approximately nil.

The fourth of five parlays preparing for Copenhagen occurred in Bangkok from Sept. 28 through Oct. 9, with delegates from about 180 nations participating. Remember diplomat George Kennan's axiom that the unlikelihood of reaching an agreement is the square of the number of parties at the table? The meeting adjourned with, as usual, essentially no progress toward an agreement on reduced emissions by developed nations or on the money such nations should pay to finance developing nations' efforts against global warming.

The New York Times reports that "the United Nations Adaptation Fund, which officially began operating in 2008 to help poor countries finance projects to blunt the effects of global warming, remains an empty shell, largely because rich nations have failed to come through with the donations they promised." The fund has a risible $18 million, which might not cover the cost of the Copenhagen conference.

There conferees will experience more futility because of, among other things, two stubborn facts -- the two most populous nations. On Oct. 21, China, the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases, and India, which ranks fourth -- together they account for 26 percent of emissions -- jointly agreed: They, with their combined one-third of the world's population, will not play in what increasingly resembles a global game of climate-change charades. Neither nation is interested in jeopardizing its economic growth with emissions caps of a sort that never impeded the growth of the developed nations that now praise them.

But do not really embrace them. Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives took time out from fending off the world and exempted large cattle-, dairy- and hog-producing operations from an Environmental Protection Agency requirement for reporting greenhouse gas emissions. And 13 Great Lakes cargo ships were exempted from a proposed mandate requiring the use of low-sulfur fuel. When constituents' interests conflict with global grandstanding, Congress's rule is "act locally, think globally tomorrow, maybe."

In their new book, "SuperFreakonomics," Steven D. Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, and Stephen J. Dubner, a journalist, worry about global warming but revive some inconvenient memories of 30 years ago. Then intelligent people agreed (see above) that global cooling threatened human survival. It had, Newsweek reported, "taken the planet about a sixth of the way toward the Ice Age average." Some scientists proposed radical measures to cause global warming -- for example, covering the arctic ice cap with black soot that would absorb heat and cause melting.

Levitt and Dubner also spoil some of the fun of the sort of the "think globally, act locally" gestures that are liturgically important in the church of climate change. For example, they say the "locavore" movement -- people eating locally grown foods from small farms -- actually increases greenhouse gas emissions. They cite research showing that only 11 percent of such emissions associated with food are in the transportation of it; 80 percent are in the production phase and, regarding emissions, big farms are much more efficient.

Although the political and media drumbeat of alarm is incessant, a Pew poll shows that only 57 percent of Americans think there is solid evidence of global warming, down 20 points in three years. Gallup shows that only 1 percent of Americans rank the environment as their biggest worry. Two reasons are:

They are worried about their wages, which will not be improved by clobbering a weak economy with the costs of a cap-and-trade carbon-reduction regime. And climate doomsayers are learning the wages of crying "Wolf!"

In 2005, global warming worriers warned, as they tend to do after all adverse or anomalous environmental events, that Hurricane Katrina was caused by global warming and foreshadowed an increase in the number and destructiveness of hurricanes. As this year's Atlantic hurricane season ends, only three hurricanes have formed -- half the average of the past 50 years -- and none has hit the United States.

georgewill@washpost.com


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