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Gorbachev Warns Los Angeles Meeting of Impending Crisis in World Water Supplies; Panelists Discuss Dangers of Global Warming

Gorbachev Warns Los Angeles Meeting of Impending Crisis in World Water Supplies; Panelists Discuss Dangers of Global Warming

Two hundred people at environmental conference hear expert panel on impacts and causes of global warming. Former Soviet President points to Middle East as especially at risk of deadly drought.

By Leslie Evans

The number one deficit in the world today is the deficit of fresh water

Former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, addressing a standing-room only crowd March 15 at the Marriott Hotel in Marina Del Rey, California, warned of "a crisis of immense proportions" in the supply of fresh water in the Middle East if the countries of the region do not find a way to make peace and work together to solve this impending environmental disaster. President Gorbachev's address keynoted a symposium of distinguished environmental authorities and activists sponsored by Global Green USA, the U.S. affiliate of Green Cross International, and cosponsored by several other concerned organizations including UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations.

"The number one deficit in the world today," Gorbachev told the audience, "is the deficit of fresh water. For three years Green Cross International has been involved in a fresh water project to address the shortage of fresh water in the Middle East, particularly in Israel, Jordan, and Palestine. Unless something is done to increase the supplies of fresh water, in 10 or 15 years we could have a crisis of enormous proportions in that region. This is another reason why we must put an end as soon as possible to the crisis that is taking place in the Middle East now."

Gorbachev reported that the World Health Organization has conducted studies in 5 regions of the world and discovered that contaminated drinking water "is the cause of 80% of the infections in those areas." Other areas besides the Middle East that face serious shortages of drinking water are southern Africa, the Nile River delta, and the Indian subcontinent. Gorbachev is the president of Green Cross International, a global environmental defense organization founded in 1993 and based in Switzerland.

Gorbachev concluded by speaking more generally on the problems of preserving a habitable earth: "I think our experts may disagree, and some experts say we will reach the point of environmental disaster in 35 years, others in 50 years, still others at the end of the twenty-first century. But I don't think those differences are important. It is quite clear that decisions that we take will soon have great importance. Policymakers today need our support, but they also need some democratic pressure, so they address these problems of such vital importance. When we started glasnost in the Soviet Union the first people who took advantage of the expanded democratic rights were people concerned about the environment. Because of those protests we closed down thirteen hundred industrial facilities. Some of them were of unique importance to the economy, but I think that when it is a matter of importance to the environment in which we live that we must take strict measures."

There was a moment of extraordinary communion across cultures when the audience of early twenty-first century Americans rose in thunderous applause at a speech by the former president of the "evil empire."

How Bad Is Global Warming?

The meeting, billed as the Fifth Annual Sustainability Symposium: Confronting Climate Change, Averting a Global Environmental Crisis, was opened by Ross Gelbspan, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, formerly with the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. The principal topic addressed by the panel was the problem of global warming. "Unintentionally," he said, "we have set in motion processes that have changed weather systems that had lasted 10,000 years. The 1990s was the hottest decade in a millennium, and probably the fastest change in the last 10,000 years. Island homes are going under. Insect ranges are expanding. Warming is intensifying in the deep oceans. Big pieces of the Antarctic ice shelf are breaking off, one a few years ago was the size of Connecticut. Spring arrived 2 weeks earlier than it did twenty years ago. We are changing the rhythms of nature."

The changes to date are the result, Gelbspan said, of a largely human-caused rise of only 1 degree in the last century. "But this small amount has very large consequences: prolonged drought in Central America last year, a large drought in Iran, the worst flash flood in Iran in 200 years, a large flash flood in Algeria. It was 71 degrees in Boston on January 1 this year." But dramatic as these symptoms are, Gelbspan said, scientists now predict that the coming century will see temperature rises of 3 to 10 degrees.

Gelbspan castigated as inadequate the efforts of the industrialized countries to counter the rising temperatures largely the result of the release of greenhouse gases from the use of fossil fuels. "Our response has been dismal. The Kyoto Protocol calls for reductions of 7-8%, but real reductions are only about 3%.  The United States has refused outright to ratify the treaty. We have played an obstructionist role. Under the Clinton-Gore administration they were under the influence of the fossil fuels lobby. The U.S. generates about 25% of world greenhouse gasses. Bush's stated reason for withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol was that it exempted developing countries. Bush senior had approved this exemption. The North needs to solve the problem first, as they are the worst offenders."

BP Shows Industry Can Make a Difference

It has been widely argued by critics of efforts to control emissions that this would impose extraordinary costs on business. At least one major oil company has demonstrated in practice that this is not so. Sylvia Baca, North American Vice President of BP (formerly British Petroleum) for Health, Safety and Environment, told the conference that BP had voluntarily decided to comply with the Kyoto standards. British based BP is the largest supplier of oil and gas in the United States, with a capitalization of $203 billion and 107,000 employees.

"In 1997," Sylvia Baca said, "Lord John Browne, BP's Chief Executive, announced that reputable science could not be ignored. We are a major player in the energy industry. BP began to work with Environmental Defense and the World Resources Institute. We committed ourselves to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases to 10% below our 1990 levels by 2010 to meet the Kyoto Protocol guidelines. We reduced to the 80 million tons level, which is 10 million tons below the 1990 baseline, and we got there 7 years early!"

There was "no one magic bullet," Baca said. BP accomplished the feat by using cleaner-burning fuels; creating an internal trading system in carbon credits within their global operation; investing larger proportions of their capital in natural gas; and investing in solar power generation. "The reductions came from small improvements," Baca told the conference. Even more remarkable, "We met these goals with essentially no cost."

"We achieved major reductions in emissions at our Texas plants, as well as in Korea. There were major reductions in greenhouse gases on our offshore platforms around the world. We saved about $650 million through new efficiencies, that also reduced emissions. Our portfolio is now 40% natural gas, up from 15% 10 years ago. We are the largest solar company in the world. We have 70% of the world solar market."

"People make the argument that you cannot both grow your company and reduce emissions at the same time. We have shown that this is not true. We plan going on from here to further reduce emissions at our production sites. Now we are going to reduce the carbon content of our products. That is, we want not only to reduce our own emissions, but also to provide products to customers that will be cleaner than in the past."

And in another direction, BP is setting a good example. Sylvia Baca reported that BP has decided to stop making political contributions to U.S. candidates.

Where Are the Greenhouse Gases Coming From?

Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, applauded the achievements of BP, but said that the big polluters will require strict government regulation and cannot be corrected through voluntary efforts. He characterized President Bush's appeal to volunteer efforts to control emissions and global warming as "another example of his faith based initiatives."

The biggest single source of greenhouse gases, Clapp said, are the electric utilities, "who produce 35% of the emissions, mostly from coal fires."  Another 27%, he reported, comes from transportation, mainly private automobiles; 20% comes from industrial boilers; and 17% from home heating. "To get anywhere near the scale necessary you need to clean up the electric utilities. This is the biggest single source of air pollution, that causes asthma, as well as global warming. They are a major cause of lung cancer. These industries have never cleaned themselves up voluntarily. The same is true of transportation. The goal here must be fuel efficiency. Detroit has never voluntarily made increases of efficiency. It was only after the Arab oil embargo and under government regulation that what improvement there has been took place."

Other speakers included John Bradford of Interface America; film and television director Marshall Herskovitz; Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute; and Robert J. Lempert, a senior scientist at the Rand Corporation.

Burkle Center for International Relations