The Mercury's Rising

You might assume that "global warming" means what it says, involving nothing more complex than a rise in the world's temperature. But notice the penguins. Over the last several months, hundreds of Magellanic penguins have been washing ashore near Rio de Janeiro, 2,000 miles north of their usual haunts. The wayward birds may be signs of a massive climate shift in the South Atlantic: warming may have altered ocean circulation so as to nudge the cold-water currents (which the penguins follow for chow) thousands of miles off course. As it happens, one of the greatest worries about global warming is that it will shift Atlantic Ocean currents that warm northern Europe. If that happens, temperatures could plunge 20 degrees in 10 years. Lost penguins, warn some scientists, may be harbingers of such catastrophes--which the benign-sounding "global warming" doesn't even hint at.

For the last two weeks, delegates from some 180 countries met in The Hague to finalize rules for the global-climate treaty negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. Under that pact, industrialized countries would cut their emissions of greenhouse gases (notably the carbon dioxide released when coal, oil and gas burn). The United States would have to reduce emissions 7 percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. That's only if the Senate ratifies the treaty, of course--which seems as likely as Holocaust survivors voting for Pat Buchanan. But last week two leading greenhouse skeptics had a change of heart. Republican Sens. Larry Craig and Chuck Hagel said they now agree that human activity is contributing to global warming. The chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change went further. "There is absolutely no question that the climate is warming, sea levels are rising and glaciers are melting," said climatologist Robert Watson. "There is no question humans are involved."

That wasn't enough to produce an agreement. The Hague talks foundered on how much credit a nation should get toward its Kyoto target for the carbon dioxide its forests suck up (the United States insisted on lots of credit, which Europe rejected). Nor could negotiators agree on whether rich countries should get credit for paying another country to reduce its greenhouse emissions. By the next round of talks, the United States might actually know who its next president is. Ironically, some environmentalists think George W. Bush might be their best hope. Much as it took Nixon to go to China, it may take an oilman to convince businesses and conservatives that it's time to take global warming seriously.