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Kyoto copout | Home Front

Kyoto copout

The Sierra Club's contingent in Kyoto arrived bearing gifts—bright yellow T-shirts that implored, "With the Earth in the Balance, Don't COP out." In the parlance of treaty negotiators, COP refers to the "conference of the parties," the broad climate-change framework hammered out in Brazil in 1992. The literary allusion was to that same year's best-seller by then-Senator Al Gore, in which he called for "bold and unequivocal action" to combat the threat of global warming.

Sadly, Vice President Gore heeded neither the Club nor his own book. He did make a dramatic, 1-day appearance at the 11-day December gathering, under pressure from environmentalists. But when the United States and 37 other developed nations finally agreed on binding targets and timetables to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, the steps were anything but bold and unequivocal.

"The good news is that the world focused its attention on global warming and decided to act," says Club President Adam Werbach, who attended the conference with Dan Becker, the Club's global warming program director, and Kristin Hyde, its communications director. "The bad news is that the pollution levels set by this treaty are risky for us, dangerous for our children, and potentially catastrophic for our grandchildren."

The treaty calls for more rigorous cuts than the White House wanted heading into the talks, but falls far short of the steps urged by other industrialized nations-and by President Clinton himself, who as recently as October cited a "solemn obligation" to prevent global warming. "I think we all have to agree that the potential for serious climate disruption is real," he said. "It would clearly be a grave mistake to bury our heads in the sand and pretend the issue will go away."

Faced with strong opposition in Congress and a $13 million lobbying campaign by polluting industries, the White House grudgingly agreed to on-paper reductions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. But the formula for scaling back emissions is enormously complicated, and Clinton aides admit that the real reductions required will be closer to 3 percent-a number that environmentalists, citing loopholes in the treaty, regard as overstated as well.

"This agreement has almost as many loopholes as targets," complains Becker. "It's the result of a tug-of-war between the Europeans, who wanted honest reductions, and the Americans, who wanted dishonest reductions." Besides the lengthy timetable for cuts, he and others object to the treaty's heavy reliance on voluntary measures and especially its emissions-trading scheme, which allows U.S. industries to discharge higher levels of greenhouse gases in exchange for investing in pollution controls in other countries. "The thinking is, 'Let Vladimir do it, so we don't have to do it here,' " says Becker, who adds that this so-called joint implementation plan is "unverifiable" and "unpoliceable."

Club activists contend that the United States-which produces nearly a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide, the primary culprit in global warming-is the place to begin reversing the trend toward climate instability. "Most of all, we want to get cuts in domestic emissions now," says Becker. "There's a lot that could be done by this administration-and even more if Congress helped."

To jump-start that process, the Sierra Club has launched a public-education campaign to rally support for quick action on climate change. Starting last fall-months before the Kyoto summit-the Club produced a series of attention-grabbing public-service announcements to air on TV stations around the country. A new Web site offers everything from news accounts to a recent "name that gas guzzler" contest, which invited visitors to help Ford come up with a fitting moniker for its latest CO2-spewing sport utility vehicle.

Two long-standing objectives remain at the top of the Club's climate-change agenda: increasing the fuel efficiency of automobiles and light trucks, and encouraging energy conservation and a nationwide shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

For now, at least, Senate leaders are threatening to block ratification of the Kyoto agreement unless it's weakened still further. But with or without a treaty, Club leaders are intent on persuading the American people of the need for bold and unequivocal action. Only then, they believe, will Clinton and Congress come along.

Says Becker: "We're looking to the future."

—By B.J. Bergman

For more information, see te Sierra Club's global warming campaign website at

Home Front

Pacific Coast: GOLD STRIKE
On Thanksgiving a hundred Sierra Club volunteers and Native Americans gathered at Indian Pass in the California desert to break bread and unite in the fight to halt a proposed gold mine on the very site where they ate their meal. Over the course of the day, spiritual leaders of the Quechan tribe guided Club activists to the "Running Man" pictograph and to other sites that reveal 10,000 years of human presence.

If the Bureau of Land Management and Glammis Gold have their way, the areas will be scarred by 700-foot-deep pits and 300-foot-high piles of unreclaimed waste rock. The activists have vowed to fight to prevent mining on the sacred lands, beginning with a letter-writing campaign aimed at the California director of the BLM (now under way), and ending, if necessary, with a showdown in court. To express your support, write Ed Hastey, BLM, 2800 Cottage Way, Sacramento, CA 95825.

Bob Schneider of the Yolano Group has scaled peaks from Peru to Nepal. But he enjoyed one of his greatest highs in the pancake-flat Sacramento Valley one drizzly day last November. After nearly a decade of behind-the-scenes efforts to transform 3,700 acres of a flood-control channel into habitat, environmentalists under the aegis of the Yolo Basin Foundation saw their mission accomplished with the dedication of the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. "This is the heart of the Pacific Flyway," says Schneider of the wetland ecosystem. "It'll be visited by millions of migratory waterfowl."

But the bogs aren't only for the birds. Conservationists envision a marshy mecca for recreationists and duck hunters, who gave the project an impressive boost. President Bill Clinton, who attended the event, hailed the spirit of cooperation that enabled the largest wetland restoration in the West. Schneider takes a similar view. "Farmers, hunters, property owners, state and federal agencies, and environmentalists all teamed up to re-create wildlife habitat," he says. "No one entity could have done it alone."

Atlantic Coast: DRIVE IN, FLY OUT
The protections of the Clean Water Act coupled with an improving New England economy have brought the once severely polluted Blackstone River to its cleanest condition in a century. Continuing the effort, the Rhode Island Chapter is now working on converting an abandoned 35-acre site in the Blackstone's watershed into a stop on the Atlantic Flyway. Turning out for a Club-sponsored cleanup in September, 50 volunteers filled up 100 trash bags of debris from the old 35-acre Lonsdale Drive-in.

Both of Rhode Island's senators applauded the effort at the celebration that followed, as did the state's environmental director, Andrew McLeod, who affirmed the goal of establishing a wetland on the property. Having helped track down the funds, chapter activists are now awaiting the state's purchase of the land and the transformation of asphalt into critical habitat for waterfowl.

Interior Highlands: ECO-THUGGERY
On her way to what she believed would be a TV interview on the possible impacts of lead mining in Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest, Becky Horton of the Ozark Chapter was brutally attacked by stick-wielding hoods last July. After the beating, the four criminals-one sporting a swastika on his shirt-duct-taped her to her car seat, stuffed a Sierra Club pamphlet in her mouth, and taped a property-rights video to her hand. The terrified activist was found in her vandalized car the following morning.

Bullying over land-use issues in the Ozarks is nothing new. In recent years, acts of intimidation have ranged from threatening phone calls to stalking to gunfire. The assault, however, represented a new low in the harassment. "Some people don't like what we do," Horton says. "They have a right to say so, but not to brutalize me. We have a right to monitor the river's health, and to protect the area that is our home." Her unidentified assailants remain at large.

Rocky Mountains: RUNAWAY RUNOFF
Upon reaching the 14,109-foot summit of Pikes Peak, poet Katharine Lee Bates was inspired to write "America the Beautiful." These days, environmentalists are finding less to sing about. With approval from the U. S. Forest Service, the city of Colorado Springs applies thousands of tons of gravel annually to maintain Pikes Peak Highway, the 20-mile route taken by thousands of tourists on their motorized pilgrimage to the mountaintop.

An estimated 20 percent of the gravel washes off the road, smothering wetland vegetation, and, according to a report from the Forest Service itself, diminishing biological productivity in nearby streams by 85 percent. Yet with evidence dating to 1952 linking highway erosion to environmental degradation, authorities have done little to abate the flow of roadway sediments into Pikes Peak waterways. Kicking up a little dust of its own, the Rocky Mountain Chapter is now suing the Forest Service and Colorado Springs for violating the Clean Water Act.

Shin-Etsu Chemical Company boasts that it contributes to a better quality of life. But the proposed polyvinyl chloride manufacturing plant of its subsidiary, Shintech, Inc., would have the opposite effect in Convent, Louisiana. Located in the industrial corridor known as Cancer Alley, the predominantly poor, African-American community is already overburdened by toxic emissions. Thanks to corporate coddling at the state's Department of Environmental Quality, Shintech was licensed to disgorge an additional 625,000 pounds of filth into Convent's air. The ensuing outcry from a broad coalition, including the Delta Chapter, civil-rights groups, and residents, convinced the EPA to reject the permits. The activists are now suing to shut out the PVC purveyor permanently.

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