Ten years ago this week United Nations delegates from the world's developed countries came together in Kyoto, Japan, to negotiate the Kyoto Accord. It's a bittersweet anniversary because it marks the first time world leaders decided joint action was needed to curtail global warming, but it also stands as a reminder today of how little distance we've traveled so far toward a solution.
Make no mistake: The danger looms larger than ever. A mid-November report from the U.S. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes, beyond a credible doubt, that global warming is the greatest threat we face today as a civilization. Thousands of the world's top scientists have compiled mountains of data and now instruct us, inescapably, that our planet is at grave risk from planet warming and that we have an ever-shrinking window of time — perhaps 10 years — to take steps to minimize it.
And so this week's CityBeat looks 10 years back and 10 years ahead to ask two important questions: Why is the United States the only developed nation in the world to reject the Kyoto Accord, and can we build enough personal and political will to push the U.S. into a leadership position in the fight against global warming?
The cover story package was created through a joint effort by alternative newspapers across the country to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Kyoto Accord. With the help of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) in Washington, D.C., of which CityBeat is a member, as many as 50 alt weeklies will be publishing stories about global warming and the significance of the Kyoto agreement this week and next.
Like CityBeat, alt weeklies across the country usually focus on their core strengths in local coverage: local politics, local issues, local music, local arts, local people, local organizations and local businesses. That's our niche, our reason for being.
But every now and then we step outside the local focus to tackle a national or international issue, often in a concerted effort with other alt weeklies. Frankly, if it weren't for the organizing work done by AAN and for the support from our larger member papers, CityBeat wouldn't be able to produce this level of coverage on our own.
The sum of the effort offers more than what any individual paper could do, as we've demonstrated in the past: Jason Vest's investigation of the U.S. government's early errors in Iraq ("Fables of the Reconstruction," issue of April 21, 2004); Dan Frosch's story highlighting the Department of Veterans Affairs' inability to properly treat Iraq War veterans with post-traumatic stress conditions ("Soldier's Heart," issue of Dec. 15, 2004); and Michael Tisserand's 11-part "Submerged" series on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans that ran on our Web site in 2005 and 2006.
This week we turn to the 10th anniversary of the Kyoto Accord and face new developments almost every day. Last week the newly elected Australian Prime Minister signed the Kyoto Accord the morning he was inaugurated, leaving the U.S. as the only developed nation not to support that landmark agreement. Another round of international talks on climate change are taking place as we speak in Bali, Indonesia.
Here at home, however, it's business as usual. Very little time or effort is being expended in the presidential campaigns to make an issue out of global warming — in either party. Voters aren't pushing candidates to take it seriously. The Bush administration pretends everything is fine.
Clearly we need change at both a political and personal level.
Politically, we need to get Congress to raise fuel-economy standards for new cars; build a national energy policy based on renewable sources such as solar and wind; demand that the U.S. join an international treaty (the Kyoto Accord expires in 2012) that radically cuts global-warming pollution in developed countries and, slightly less radically, worldwide; and fight for laws and policies that expand the use of renewable energy sources and reduce dependence on oil and coal.
Personally, we need to "go green" in our lives by doing such things as replacing standard light bulbs with compact fluorescent ones; recycling more; walking, biking, carpooling or taking mass transit more often; using less hot water since it takes more energy to heat water; avoiding products with lots of packaging; keeping automobile tires inflated properly to improve gas mileage by more than 3 percent; installing low-flow showerheads; moving the thermostat down 2 degrees in winter and up 2 degrees in summer (saving about 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year); planting trees, since a single tree will absorb one ton of carbon dioxide over its lifetime; and turning off the television, DVD player, stereo and computer when you're not using them to save thousands of pounds of carbon dioxide a year. Find more suggestions at www.theclimateproject.org.
Key Bush administration figures long ago decided that widespread public sacrifice shouldn't be part of the nation's strategic goals, whether in the war in Iraq or the battle against global warming. Their special brand of selfishness and arrogance has lulled Americans into believing that we can "buy" our way or "grow" our way out of any problem.
That's not going to happen with the world's environment.
This past year, renowned author and environmentalist Bill McKibben helped his students launch a campaign, rightly called "Step It Up," to remind both Congress and the American people that it's time to greatly pump up our efforts in the fight against global warming. McKibben writes the lead story in our Kyoto section.
The battle is going to be political, and it's got to get personal, he advises. And the changes must come very soon.
SACRAMENTO NEWS & REVIEW contributed to this column and was the major organizing force behind the package of Kyoto stories presented by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. We thank them.