Confusing the issues: Environmental survival trumps economic development

Given the sudden interest by high-level politicians in the rapidly escalating impacts of global climate change, one might have expected a little more news coverage of World Environment Day. Sponsored by the United Nations on June 5, this year’s proceeding took place in Tromso, Norway, and highlighted the effects the world’s melting ice caps and glaciers will have on the rest of the planet. And friends, if the scientists are right, that melting—and the concurrent rise in sea levels—will negatively affect about 40 percent or more of the human population.

The latest information, contained in a document titled “Global Outlook for Ice and Snow,” comes hard on the heels of the massive two-volume report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change authored by hundreds of scientists from all over the world.

The news, as is becoming more apparent every day, is not good. For one thing, entire sections of the polar regions are warming at the unexpected rate of two to three times faster than the global average. The Greenland Ice Sheet, which is the world’s second-largest ice mass, used to be nearly a mile thick over its 660,234-square-mile area. After setting new records for melting in 2002, the ice is now melting faster than winter snows can replace it. Plus, winter temperatures there, as in Montana, have been considerably warmer than long-term averages, with consequently reduced snowfall.

If the ice mass melts, which it is likely to do since the loss of shiny white ice and snow means less heat reflected back into space, world ocean levels are projected to rise by 23 feet in this century. But even a much smaller rise in ocean levels would submerge heavily populated coastlines, displacing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people. Plus, the influx of that much water will likely alter global ocean currents, significantly changing their effect on nearby land masses, precipitation patterns, major rivers, commercial fishing operations and atmospheric conditions, spawning more of the severe typhoons, tornadoes and hurricanes already wracking coastal regions of the world.

That the globe’s largest ice masses in its coldest environs are suffering these kinds of losses means even worse things are happening to the ice and snow in warmer areas. Equatorial ice, such as the once-magnificent icecap of Africa’s tallest mountain, Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro (19,340 ft), is disappearing at an alarming rate. Described by Ernest Hemingway as “wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun,” Kilimanjaro has lost 82 percent of its ice since 1912, when it was first measured. The ice could be gone entirely by 2020.

This alarming news comes just as the G-8 meeting of wealthy nations gets underway. Unfortunately, despite his recent call for meetings to develop a long-term global plan, President Bush—whose initials “G.W.” are now being laughingly referred to as standing for “global warming”—has once again done everything in his power to water down the scientific consensus, downplay the potential for catastrophe, and defend the nation’s economy as more important than the global environment. Unfortunately, he was recently joined in this stance by China, which may soon outpace the United States as the world’s leading polluter nation.

Even here in Montana, the impasse over the economic effects of altering our pollution patterns are couched not in terms of real environmental impacts, but in terms of economic development. Our state, like our nation, has no real energy plan. Instead, Gov. Schweitzer, like other governors before him, has placed his energy policy efforts under the auspices of his economic development office.

What this means is that we have confused energy policy with economic development once again. While implementation of an energy policy could certainly result in economic development, muddling those two distinct issues to place economic development on top is a mistake at both the national and state levels. Energy policy should be about the appropriate use of existing energy resources to meet the needs (not demands) of our society without destroying the planet. Economic development, on the other hand, sees the creation of jobs and businesses as its highest priority, as well as the measure of its success or failure. Meanwhile, environmental impacts to the state, nation and globe are externalized or ignored for the most part—or worse, used as an excuse to not make necessary changes because of their potential impact on the economy.

The same thing, sad to say, is happening in Congress. Despite the wars, the incredible expenditures, and the concurrent cost in human life to ensure our access to global oil supplies, when new mileage standards for cars and trucks are discussed it’s always in terms of impacts on the automotive industry instead of the benefits that would accrue worldwide. Instead of tackling the problem head-on as a necessary change to energy and pollution policy, our business-friendly representatives and senators continue to kowtow to well-heeled executives and their hired-gun lobbyists to make sure nothing changes significantly for at least a decade or more. That means we’d finally be upping our mileage standards for cars to a measly 35 miles per gallon at just about the same time Kilimanjaro’s shining ice cap becomes a fading memory.

The good news is that citizens around the world are insisting that their governments take immediate action to curb global consumption and pollution. Once again, it appears that the citizens must lead so the politicians will follow—a crying shame, but all too real.

Given our nation’s status as a leading polluter, perhaps the nearly nonexistent coverage of important international environmental proceedings is not surprising. But for aware citizens who feel a pressing need for action on this World Environment Day, urging our politicians to decouple environmental actions to save the Earth from the realm of economic development seems like a very good move—and not a minute too soon.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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