Editorial: Beyond Kyoto

I was fortunate to be an American "fly on the wall" at a recent conference of Asians and Europeans probing the possibilities for a post-Kyoto climate change regime. What struck me was the contrast between their sense of urgency on the issue and the, well...relaxed...attitude of high-level U.S. officials back home.

The group, which included parliamentarians from the two regions, clearly understands that limiting global temperature increase to 2 degrees this century requires action now. They also know that early action reduces the risk of catastrophic climate impacts and reduces the shock that climate adjustment will inevitably mean for the world's economies.

The group seemed to appreciate that changes are unfolding faster than scientists had predicted, as climate events themselves set in motion new warming mechanisms. Thawing permafrost in Siberia is releasing methane-molecule for molecule, some 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide-which in turn accelerates warming.Melting Arctic ice replaces a huge, reflective surface area with a dark one that absorbs solar rays. Atmospheric water vapor, the most important of greenhouse gases, increases with higher temperatures (because of greater evaporation) and thereby traps still more heat. And some scientists fear that the world's forests could well become net generators of carbon dioxide, rather than sponges for it, in coming decades. The trends warn us that climate change is not a linear, predictable business-and that those who dally may well pay a stiff premium for their slow response.

Against this background, the more than two years remaining in the current U.S. administration seem an eternity. It's as if the world is waiting for the slowest runner in a lopsided race to finish the course, so that we can get on to a new event.

But we need not merely sit trackside waiting for #43 to cross the finish line. Indeed, many U.S. states and municipalities are filling the vacuum of climate leadership. California's political leaders recently agreed to cut carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2020.

New York has set a goal of 20 percent renewable electricity generation by the same year. One analysis concludes that at least a quarter of the U.S. population already lives under Kyoto-like climate policies set by state and local governments.

The call from Europe and Asia is for participants in the post-Kyoto race to hurry to the starting line. Nations in the next event can warm up now to be out of the blocks quickly. Odds are that Mr. Bush's successor will be more attentive to climate issues. A strong field of climate competitors-the community of nations, of course, but also U.S. cities and states, and interest groups from the insurance industry to religious communities- can help shape the post-Kyoto climate regime by creating a political environment in which the next president has no choice but to turn in an Olympic-level performance.

-Gary Gardner, Worldwatch Director of Research