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Eye of
the Whale
The Man Who
Knew Too Much




from REFORMA, Sunday, December 7, 2003

120,000 years ago our species Homo Sapiens made his appearance on Earth. By 1900, a few decades after the beginning of the industrial era, the condition of the world's flora and fauna was, for the most part, unchanged from the previous 14,000 years. During this period of time the atmosphere had not suffered great changes, nor had the surface temperature of the planet undergone significant variations. It has taken little more than a century to upset the equilibrium.

Already in 1827, the French scientist (and Egyptologist) Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fournier had suggested that the atmosphere was heating the Earth's surface, and towards the end of the Nineteenth Century the Swedish chemist Svante August Arrhenius postulated that the increasing quantities of carbon dioxide emitted by the factories of the Industrial Revolution were, by increasing the amounts of greenhouse gases, changing the composition of the atmosphere, and he warned that this would result in an increase in the Earth's temperature. Indeed, by the end of the Twentieth Century the global temperature had risen by 0.06 of one degree. The year 1998 was hottest year in recorded history, followed by 2002. There is no longer any doubt that global warming is caused by human activity.

Man's impact upon the Earth, the oceans, and the atmosphere surpasses the effects of natural forces. Human activity is capable of instigating changes upon terrestrial and marine systems that are irreversible. On the global level we have lately experienced extreme heat and extreme cold, and we have suffered from unexpected climatic events. In several countries food production has been jeopardized. On the one hand, in Ethiopia recurring droughts have placed 14 of the 60 million inhabitants in danger of death by hunger. On the other hand, the melting of the Arctic ice has put at risk the traditional life and culture of the Inuit (or Eskimos) in Russia, Canada, Alaska and Greenland. In some parts of the Arctic the warming is 10 times greater than the global average, and for the inhabitants of this region who live exclusively by hunting in the ocean, the melting of the ice could put an end to their way of life.

It was not until the end of the nineteen seventies that the international community began to pay attention to the problem, but just yesterday, when I made a search in Google for global warming, I found 2,560,000 entries. In 1979 the first world climate conference was held. In 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (PICC) was formed in response to increasing public concern about industrial pollution. Six years ago the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in Japan, the first international treaty to urge the signatory countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases associated with global warming. It cannot enter into effect until it has been ratified by at least 55 countries who were responsible for 55% of the emissions in 1990.The goal of the Protocol is, by the year 2012, to reduce the greenhouse gases emitted in1990 by 8%. Until now 120 countries have approved the treaty. The most crucial aspect is to establish limits to the emissions.

On March 13, 2001, the President of the United States, George W. Bush, withdrew his country from the Kyoto Protocol on grounds that it excluded 80% of the world, including large population centers like China and India, and that it would cause considerable harm to the United States economy. He asked for additional scientific studies. This continues to be the key to the official position of this country, whose population represents 4% of the global population and which is responsible for 25% of the global emissions of carbon dioxide. Even worse is the program of the Bush government to permit a 14% increase in emissions over the next ten years. Without the United States the minimum goals can only be achieved with the participation of Russia (the country which ranks fourth in emissions of greenhouse gases). This week, at a United Nations conference on climate change in Milan, Italy, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would not ratify the Protocol in its present form because it would hinder the economic development of his country.

Some effects of climate change we have begun to see, and these will increase in the future if we do not change our behavior throughout the world. They are (and will be): the shrinking of the Antarctic glaciers (as confirmed by the enormous rupture of the Larsen Ice Shelf in the summer of 2002) with a consequent rise in water levels, an expansion of the area of infectious tropical diseases, flooding of coastal lands and cities, the extinction of innumerable plants and animals, an increase in droughts and desertification, loss of large extensions of forests, reductions of snow levels at low altitudes in the mountains of Switzerland, Austria, Germany, North America and Australia, and storms of greater intensity.

" Do Not Breathe Today" seems to be the slogan that has gradually replaced " Do Not Drive Today"* in this mega-city where the automobile is owner of the streets and where, against all the evidence, the authorities in the capital continue to create more facilities for vehicular traffic. Although this only makes for an increase in the use of individual transport, the government of Mexico City continues to build service roads which, before long, will be threaded together to make two tier highways. At the same time the December newspapers are full of car advertisements. Renovating the vehicular fleet with less polluting automobiles is a good idea, but only if one old one is taken out of circulation for each new one introduced. Unfortunately we know there is not a single junker anywhere in the country that doesn't continue to run until the moment when it gives up the ghost. The advertising of automobile dealers is slyly devoid of any reference to the pollution caused by their cars. They omit any information about the emissions produced by each model that might assist any buyer, concerned about his personal contribution to climate change, who might choose his vehicle on the basis of the amount of harm done to the environment in relation to the number of kilometers traveled. The proliferation in Mexico City of SUVs, whose unlimited consumption of gasoline is frankly obscene, may permit domestic employees of the wealthy to go to shop at the supermarket without having to worry about the ubiquitous potholes, but it increases the amount of harmful gases with which Mexico participates in poisoning the planet. Let us be less selfish, let us behave in an ethical and moral manner, let us think more about the future of our children and less about the spectacle of a two-headed dinosaur committing suicide*. And when the topic of energy reform comes up, let it be about how to replace, as much as possible, the burning of fossil fuels with renewable energies like solar and wind, and let us undertake a vigorous national campaign for efficient electricity.

  • "Do Not Drive Today" refers to the Mexico City government's attempt to reduce air pollution by keeping half of the private vehicles off the road on certain days of the year. The slogan used is Hoy No Circula.

  • This is a reference to the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) which recently split its vote over President Fox's Financial Reform Bill. The bill failed to pass through Congress and the PRI is considerably damaged by its actions.

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