‘Debate about global warming is now over’

Forty-five nations joined France in calling for a new environmental body to slow global warming and protect the planet, a body that potentially could have policing powers to punish violators.

Absent were the world’s heavyweight polluter, the United States, and booming nations on the same path as the US, China and India.

Saturday’s effort, led by French President Jacques Chirac, came a day after the release of an authoritative, and disturbingly grim, scientific report saying that global warming is ”very likely” caused by mankind, and that climate change will continue for centuries even if heat-trapping gases are reduced. It the strongest

language ever used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose last report was issued in 2001.

The document, a collaboration of hundreds of scientists and government officials, was approved by 113 nations, including the US.

Despite the report’s dire outlook, most scientists have said the worst disasters — huge sea level rises and the most catastrophic storms and droughts — may be avoided if strong action is taken soon.

”It is our responsibility. The future of humanity demands it,” Chirac said.

Without naming the US, the producer of about one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases, Chirac expressed frustration that ”some large, rich countries still must be convinced” and were ”refusing to accept the consequences of their acts”.

So far, it is mostly European nations that have agreed to pursue plans for the new organisation and hold their first meeting in Morocco this spring.

Chirac (74) is seeking to make his mark on international affairs before he leaves office, likely in May, though his own environmental record over 12 years as France’s president is spotty.

Former US vice-president Al Gore, whose Oscar-nominated documentary on the perils of global warming has gained worldwide attention, cheered Chirac’s efforts.

”We are at a tipping point,” Gore said to the conference by videophone. ”We must act, and act swiftly … Such action requires international cooperation.”

Scientists and international leaders said the science was now so well-documented that action was clearly the next step.

”It is time now to hear from the world’s policymakers,” Tim Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, said on Friday.

”The so-called and long-overstated ‘debate’ about global warming is now over.”

Granger Morgan, an energy expert at Carnegie Mellon University in the US, predicted the new climate report ”will kick a few more folks to get on board”.

And Jason Grumet, head of US bipartisan advocacy group, the National Commission on Energy Policy, said, ”The debate has clearly shifted from a battle over the science to fighting over the scope and design of the solution.”

Many questions remain about the proposed new environmental body, including whether it should have the power to enforce global climate accords.

Chirac’s appeal says only that the group should ”evaluate ecological damage” and ”support the implementation of environmental decisions.”

Many countries have failed to meet targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions laid out in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the UN treaty on climate change. The United States has never ratified the pact. On Friday, the Bush administration reiterated its rejection of imposed cuts on greenhouse gases.

Earlier this week, Chirac warned in a published interview that the US could face a carbon tax on its exports if it does not sign global climate accords.

The European Union, which signed on to the Kyoto treaty, has committed to a 20% reduction in carbon pollution by 2020, and if joined by other countries could try further for a 60% cut by 2050, said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The United Nations also is considering a summit of world leaders to tackle global warming, and de Boer said he would expect the US to send high-ranking officials to participate.

Despite White House resistance to carbon-cutting measures, de Boer and Carnegie Mellon professor Morgan said they saw movement in the United States anyway.

”We are certainly building critical mass among opinion leaders and nontechnical folks,” Morgan said, citing recent calls to action by corporate CEOs, even in the energy industry. ”We are at the point over the next three to five years where the US is going to get quite serious about it.”

And in May, the same international panel that wrote Friday’s report will wrap up a new document spelling out the benefits and costs of slowing global warming, laying out choices for policymakers.

For now, scientists are energized that the world is finally listening to them.

Kevin Trenberth, an American co-author of the new climate report, marveled at the crowd of more than 400 reporters on hand for the document’s release on Friday. Smiling, he took out a small camera and took a picture of the media. – Sapa-AP

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