UN Secretary General Denounces U.S. Global Warming Stance

By Cat Lazaroff

MEDFORD, Massachusetts, May 21, 2001 (ENS) - United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan sounded an alarm Sunday that climate change "may well be the greatest global challenge" for the next generation, while expressing the "concern throughout the world" over the recent U.S. decision to reject the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

In a commencement address delivered to graduating students at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, the Secretary General singled out the United States as the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, the human caused pollution that leads to global climate change.

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United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke Sunday at commencement ceremonies for the Fletcher School at Tufts University (Photo courtesy the United Nations)
"The United States, as you probably know, is the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases, largely because it is the world's largest and most successful economy,'' said Annan. "That makes it especially important for it to join in reducing emissions and in the broader quest for energy efficiency and conservation. Indeed, there is concern throughout the world about the decision of the new Administration to oppose the Kyoto Protocol."

Last March, President George W. Bush announced the U.S. would not support the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement - which has yet to enter into force - and which aims to fill in the operational details of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The legally binding Convention was adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and aims to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at safe levels.

The U.S. was the first developed country to sign the Framework Convention on Climate Change, but the Kyoto Protocol has never been sent to the U.S. Senate for ratification. President Bush and his cabinet members have condemned the Protocol as endangering U.S. energy supplies and economic growth.

"I will not accept a plan that will harm our economy and hurt American workers," Bush told reporters in March. Bush said he would continue to work with American allies to reduce greenhouse gases, but would not support the Kyoto Protocol.

Annan cited "the very real danger" that the hard won global gains in combating climate change will experience "a grievous setback," for both developing as well as industrial nations.

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U.S. President George W. Bush makes a public appearance with Secretary General Annan during Annan's March 2001 visit to Washington DC (Photo courtesy The White House)
"Developing countries would be left most vulnerable, even though they are the least responsible for global warming," Annan warned. "But make no mistake: all countries will suffer. Climate change cares little for the borders drawn by men."

While mostly avoiding direct mention of the United States, Secretary-General Annan countered many of the arguments used by the Bush administration to reject the treaty. For example, he strongly denied that environmental safeguards would undermine the economy.

"Contrary to popular belief, we do not face a choice between economy and ecology," he said. "It is often said that protecting the environment would constrain or even undermine economic growth. In fact, the opposite is true: unless we protect resources and the earth's natural capital, we shall not be able to sustain economic growth."

Annan noted that the financial costs of cleaning up the environment are rarely calculated, including "harmful side effects, such as the health costs of air pollution from smokestack industries or from gas guzzling vehicles." And, he warned of the high costs of inaction.

"We must stop being so economically defensive, and start being more politically courageous," Annan said.

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Annan shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney as President Bush looks on (Photo by Sophie Paris, courtesy the United Nations)
Annan also dismissed the argument suggesting that conservation efforts have only limited value - a controversial view enunciated by Vice President Richard Cheney, the chair of the president's energy task force, who said in public appearances earlier this month that conservation is more of a "personal virtue" than public policy.

"It is also said that conservation, while admirable, has only limited potential," the Secretary-General said. "But economists now broadly agree that improved energy efficiency and other 'no regrets' strategies could bring great benefits at little or no cost."

Annan also challenged those who argue that there is no scientific proof of global warming.

"Imagine melting polar icecaps and rising sea levels, threatening beloved and highly developed coastal areas such as Cape Cod [in Massachusetts] with erosion and storm surges. Imagine extreme weather causing billion dollar calamities. Imagine a warmer and wetter world in which infectious diseases such as malaria and yellow fever spread more easily," said Annan, describing many of the potential effects that climate scientists have warned could result from global warming.

"This is not some distant, worst case scenario. It is tomorrow's forecast," Annan added. "Nor is this science fiction. It is sober prediction, based on the best available science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of the world's leading climatologists and others - including many from the United States - has carefully sifted the evidence and concluded that climate change is occurring, that human activities are among the main contributing factors, and that we cannot wait any longer to take action."

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Annan and Bush meet with President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria to discuss efforts to mobilize global resources in the fight against AIDS/HIV (Photo by Evan Schneider, courtesy the United Nations)
While noting that developing nations must do their part to reduce emissions, Secretary-General Annan called on "the leaders of the industrialized world" to shoulder the burden on global warming.

"Developed countries are responsible for most of the world's current greenhouse gas emissions. And they are best placed, both economically and technologically, to make - and help others make - the necessary changes,'' Annan concluded.

With climate change negotiations set to resume in July, Annan said, "I can think of no better moment for everyone to reflect on this global threat, and to consider what more we can do in response."