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Climate Change and Politics: The US Abandons Kyoto

Last week, the Bush administration announced that it would not sign the Kyoto Protocol, provoking harsh criticism around the world and in the US. Immediately following the Bush announcement, the Senate voted against Bush's wish to cut funding for climate change programs. The Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 addition to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is an international agreement that seeks to curb global warming through several means, primarily by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases on a country-specific basis. Although a signed treaty would need to be ratified in order to take effect -- a big step which all parties agree contains uncertainty -- the important first step is to sign the treaty. Quite simply, without the Kyoto Protocol, there seems to be little domestic action to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, and no coordinated global approach. The countries that have signed the Protocol have made a public commitment to the future global environment by agreeing to impose unpopular restrictions on polluters at home. The Bush administration, however, has refused to sign, seeking a different "proactive solution" which currently exempts the US from regulation (the details of that proactive solution have yet to be revealed). Meanwhile, the Bush administration is justifying self-exemption in several ways: first, by highlighting the debate over whether global warming exists (a debate that many in the scientific community have abandoned, agreeing that global warming is indeed real, though its causes have yet to be established). Second, by claiming that existing US forests should exempt the US from regulatory actions because trees "soak up" unwanted greenhouse gases. One problem that the 84 nations/ signatories have with the US proposal is that it seems like a non-proposal; scientific experiments suggest that trees alone cannot curb global warming and that reductions in current emission levels are absolutely necessary (but can only be accomplished through strong political will). Perhaps more significantly, the refusal of the most powerful nation on earth to commit to the Kyoto Protocol, in contrast to the commitments of others, has sparked strong resentment abroad and from some US groups. The recognition that global warming could wreak havoc on earth's ecosystems (through sea level rise, spread of disease, unfavorable climate for agriculture, etc.) has led current signatories of the Protocol to seek new measures and greater flexibility, in order to encourage the US to sign. But the future of the Kyoto Protocol, and indeed, the willingness of nations to cooperate in a global effort to reduce pollution, is uncertain. This week's In The News takes a look at the recent events and provides background information on the Kyoto Protocol and the science behind global warming.
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