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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Call for Global Action

It is late morning, the last day of summer. I am hiking through Montana's Glacier National Park in search of its namesake. So far, in vain.


A century ago, this would have been easy. Huge glaciers ground down the Livingston Range, filling turquoise lakes, sustaining trout that fed bald eagles and grizzlies and replenished wetland meadows of heather, beargrass, lupine, aster and glacier lily.


Yet on this trek I have not seen a glacier.


Of course, all glaciers move -- over geologic time. But during the last hundred centuries, the temperature rose fastest in this one, eroding 70 percent of the park's glacial area, driven by 10 of the hottest years on record. Are glaciers -- Earth's storehouses of condensed water -- shrinking unnaturally fast? As custodian of America's parks, that question haunts me.


Following maps to "the foot of Grinnell Glacier,'' I find only barren dry rock. A sign reads: The glacier extended here in 1911.


By then the Industrial Age was six decades old. Factories burned coal at an unprecedented rate. Henry Ford soon would begin mass production of the Model T, whose internal combustion engine would revolutionize the world -- and its need to burn oil. Atmospheric carbon dioxide had increased 20 parts per million; Earth's mean temperature had risen 0.1 degrees Celsius.


Catching my breath, I continue up, where the air is thinner. The carbon dioxide spewed up over Charles Dickens' London and spread around the planet still hovers above. We cannot sense these increases. So what do they mean?


A scientific consensus, including Nobel Prize winners, holds that global warming is under way and "the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence.''


I drink from my canteen at the next sign: The glacier reached here in 1937. By then humans had concentrated another 15 ppm of carbon dioxide. Temperatures measured 13.9 C, 0.3 degrees hotter than 1911.


The scientific conviction rests on a proven foundation: Atmospheric layers of gases (water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide) let in sunlight, then trap heat, much like car windows. Trouble comes when humans artificially pump up the volume to unnatural levels. Concentrating carbon dioxide "thickens the glass'' to trap more heat. To do nothing is to leave children and grandchildren locked in a hot car with the windows up.


I wipe sweat from my face at the next sign: The glacier reached here in 1968. By then humanity concentrated another 15 ppm of carbon dioxide; Earth measured 14 C, 0.1 degrees hotter than 1937. Can we "crack open the windows'' in time? Looking around, I know it was easier to protect Glacier National Park from logging or development than it will be to stop its glaciers from shrinking. Can we "think global, act local'' regarding climate change?


No. But we can invert the slogan to think about what we may lose locally, then act at a global forum. That forum comes in Kyoto, Japan, in seven weeks, where 165 nations will try to reach agreement on binding targets and timetables to reduce emissions.


How we reach those emissions targets can be market-based. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency's emissions-permit trading system is reducing acid rain 40 percent faster than expected, at 10 percent of the projected cost. Rewarding efficiency spurs technology, growth and jobs around the world.


But industry underestimates its own capacity. In response to the challenge of environmental goals -- clean air, unleaded fuel, acid-free rain, ozone without Freon -- multinational corporations band together like a Greek chorus to predict job losses, soaring fuel prices, economic doom. The loss of plastic foam cups made with chlorofluorocarbons, they once warned, meant the end of civilization.


Just as tobacco companies hired "scientists'' in white lab coats to assure people that cigarettes do not cause cancer, industries (with notable exceptions such as General Motors and British Petroleum) showcase in-house "skeptics for hire'' to create the illusion of scientific uncertainty. Their $13 million ad campaign argues that the United States must do nothing until matched by countries such as Nigeria (annual per capita income: $995) or Bangladesh ($224) which emit 10 tons of carbon dioxide to every 1,500 from the United States.


The glacier appears ahead. Another decade, another 15 ppm of carbon dioxide. By 1989, Earth's temperature had risen 0.2 degrees, to 14.2 C.


But in 1989, the United States signed the Montreal Protocol, which phased out the use of ozone-destroying Freon and chlorofluorocarbons. Led by industrial nations and followed by developing countries, it was a huge success, a model for Kyoto.


No one asserts that mankind alone caused ice glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise by up to 25 centimeters this century. But we undeniably have created conditions that accelerate the process. Recall the Book of Job, where the Creator spoke out of the whirlwind after Job's suffering, demanding:





Where were you when I planned the Earth ...


When I closed the sea with barriers and set its


boundaries ...


Have you seen where the snow is stored or


visited the storehouse of hail,


Which I keep for the day of terror,


the final hours of the world?





As we reset the sea's boundaries and liquidate glacial storehouses, this passage is not a prophesy of doom but a call for humility. A call for action. A call at this exact moment in geologic time.





Bruce Babbitt is the U.S. secretary of the interior. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.