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April 17, 2007

Commentary: Society, not science, must solve global warming

By Kathleene Parker

Al Bartlett, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, calls it "Disney's First Law": Wishing will make it so. It's a particularly appropriate idea for Sunday, Earth Day 2007, as we confront the increasingly stark realities of global warming.

Bartlett's imaginary law pokes fun at our tendency to want happily-ever-after fixes rather than make substantive changes in the way we do things.

He is particularly fond of developers' and environmentalists' mutual oxymoron: sustainable growth. Growth on a finite planet - or more particularly, the United States' growth - cannot be sustained, he insists.

Scientists agree. In 1994, science's creme de la creme, in a rare joint statement by the national academies of 58 nations, reminded leaders - or tried to - that science can not endlessly pull rabbits out of hats to solve problems caused by growth.

Society, not just science, must forge population answers. It is not prudent to pin hopes on scientific solutions that may not prove sufficiently speedy or effective.

And, as John Burton of the World Land Trust said, "Reducing our individual consumption on its own will not make a shred of difference to the future of the planet," without also addressing population.

Our planet still gains a billion people every 15 years. More relevant, perhaps, is that half of all population growth before 2050 will happen in just eight nations: India, Pakistan, Nigeria, the United States, China, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in that order, unless we in the United States wake up and realize the stark reality - to us and the world - of that shocking distinction. While we cannot dictate to other nations, we should lead by example.

That brings us to President Bush and his version of Disney's First Law: biofuels.

After years of refusing to confront global warming, Bush, in his State of the Union address, set a production goal for 2017 of 35 billion gallons of grain-based ethanol and other alternative fuels - a mere token gesture against climate change. Nonetheless, 80 ethanol distilleries are under construction.

But World Watch Institute's Lester Brown recently, if inconveniently for politicians, pointed out that "the world's breadbasket is fast becoming the U.S. fuel tank." Last year, 16 percent of U.S. grain went to the fledgling ethanol industry. Food markets and energy markets are merging. We rob Peter to pay Paul.

Put in harsher terms, globally, cars compete against the world's poor for food. Cars are also responsible for the clearing of forests in Indonesia, South America and Africa to free land for biofuel production - self-defeating from the standpoint of global warming, because forests store carbon.

The world's 2 billion poorest people must soon compete for grain with 800 million of the richest people and their automobiles. Does anyone doubt who will lose on a planet where 18,000 children die from hunger every day?

It is bad enough that the United States is, along with China, the planet's carbon-emissions 800-pound gorilla. But with our high population - one of only three nations with more than 300 million residents and, thanks mostly to unfettered immigration, booming toward 1 billion late this century - it would seem we must return to a priority of the 1970s that has been lost somewhere along the way: stabilizing U.S. population.

While alternative fuels, especially nongrain-based ethanol, generated from trash, sewage or manure, could play a part in our energy future, only delusional belief in Disney's First Law would indicate we can fight global warming while facing a tripling of the population - and the number of cars driven - in the most energy-consumptive nation in the world.

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