The news on the environmental front, as of early December 2004, is not
good. The arctic is growing warmer faster than any other area of the earth,
glaciers are melting and whole ways of life are threatened. Global warming
is more of a threat to the existence of civilization than is terrorism.
Indeed, it is the major threat, but you'd never know it by the actions of
the industrial nations.
The Inuit are faced with new experiences as newly invasive species arrive.
Sometimes they are at a loss for words because they have no words for
things like wasps and robins. A plea this fall to the industrialized
nations was met with silence. The northern nations, including the United
States, finally agreed that warming is a problem, but they could not agree
about what they should do about it.
Scientists report the summer of 2003 was a disaster in Europe and the
hottest since they began keeping records. Temperatures in Paris hit 104
degrees. About 27,000 people, 14,000 in France, died from heat-related
causes. At the same time, Europe suffered a devastating drought. There is
very wide agreement that this is being caused by human activities which
produce greenhouse gases and that things are going to get worse. By 2040,
according to credible estimates, if the present trends continue half of the
summers will be as hot or hotter than 2003.
The sector which produces the most greenhouse gases is the electrical power
industry. There are alternative technologies that do not produce greenhouse
gases, but the power industry worldwide is doing little to shift to these
technologies. China is planning to build as many power plants each year for
the next 10 years as there are in all of Great Britain today. Unregulated
capitalism, which rewards producers on the basis of profits more than on
the basis of their contributions to society or the health of future
generations, is proving a poor system to address environmental problems
such as greenhouse gases. Scientists say time is running out. There is a
fear among some experts that there exists a kind of "tipping point" at
which natural systems shift gears in unpredictable and irreversible ways.
The general consensus among those who are aware of this is that when this
happens, it will not be good.
As warmer climates drift northward, invasive species are taking advantage.
In Alaska, millions of acres of evergreens are infested by insects which
formerly could not withstand the cold. Now they are killing millions of
trees. It was a surprise to many, and it may be one of many surprises.
Global warming is not a theory, and it is not something which may or may
not happen in the future. It is happening now, and it is accelerating.
A science professor in New Zealand, Professor Harold Barrett, planned to
tell a gathering of scientists that global warming could mean extinction,
but after a barrage of criticism from his colleagues he softened his words.
Accepting a science medal, he stated that global warming will end
civilization as we know it. Well, at least it's not extinction. The
problem, however, is truly global. Observers are warning that the weather
in Australia is likely to become more challenging in the future, with more
severe droughts, wind damage, heat waves, destructive rain, and so forth.
These warnings are not found on talk radio. They are coming from
Australia's science community.
One of the culprits (and there are many) involves logging. In Indonesia,
logging is blamed for the accelerated disappearance of birds of paradise.
Habitat destruction due to expanding human populations is also a factor. In
the Philippines, officials are blaming illegal logging for climate changes
including the increasing severity of storms. One of the serious problems in
that island nation involves flooding. Whether or not the storms are getting
worse, the flooding definitely is.
Indigenous peoples have been raising alarms about the problems for years.
They were among the first to alert the world that climate changes were
bringing about alterations in the environment which had never been seen
before. They have been a major voice sounding the alarm to the world
community, and at least some countries have begun to hear them. The problem
is that industrialized and industrializing countries are on a treadmill.
Nation states gain power and influence through production of wealth and
this favors industry and trade. The ideology of progress mandates that
production of wealth is a good thing and it is very difficult for people
obsessed with this ideology to factor in issues involving long-term
consequences of the activities that produce this wealth. In other words,
the industrialized countries which are creating the problem seem
ideologically and politically incapable of taking action to reverse the
trends, even when they perceive the dangers. Otherwise intelligent groups
who are in danger of losing profitable ways of doing things have been in
purposeful denial about global warming. The huge international energy
companies have led the way, even paying scientists to fudge the data on
It is understandable that European countries are motivated to take steps to
reduce greenhouse gases. Much of Europe lies further north than does much
of the United States, and the impact of greenhouse gases is having a
dramatic effect earlier there. But the problem is global, and is already
appearing in the United States in the form of more and more intense storms
in places like Florida. The first impact is on insurance companies, but
this is only the beginning.
The Buenos Aires meeting of Dec. 7, 2004 witnessed a gathering of nations
which have expressed concern about climate change and a willingness to do
something about it, but the political problems are daunting. Can nation
states agree to take actions to reduce greenhouse gases if other nation
states which are also producing greenhouse gases refuse to do so? The
powerhouse countries like China want to accumulate wealth and power as long
as possible at any cost, and other powerhouse countries like the United
States want to maintain dominance over the world economy and politics as
long as possible, and both see greenhouse gas reduction as contradictory to
those goals. This is the dilemma. Individual nation states can take actions
which imperil the peoples of the world and the most powerful nation states,
those producing the largest amounts of greenhouse gases, are at the heart
of the problem.
John C. Mohawk Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and
professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New
York at Buffalo.