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Wednesday, October 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
Feeling the heat, through the back door and beyond

By Rick Steves
Special to The Times

RICK STEVES
Residents and tourists try to fight the brutal heat in one of the fountains in London's Trafalgar Square.
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The world's warming up and Europeans are feeling the heat. While Americans are mixing their science with politics, for Europeans, experiencing is believing.

The Dutch just can't skate on their canals like they used to and the Swiss remember summer skiing in the Alps as something their parents did. Throughout the Continent, restaurateurs cash in as the season for al fresco dining lasts longer than ever. And there are more serious effects. In 2002, floods in Central Europe were costly disasters, and the heat wave of 2003 killed thousands. In 2004, for the first time in my life, I checked out of an Italian hotel ... because it didn't have air-conditioning.

While Slovenian peasants, Dutch fishermen, and American backpackers all experience these changes in Europe, scientists recognize more disturbing global changes.

Warmer oceans produce more and stronger hurricanes — wrecking the insured mansions and yachts of Florida's wealthy and the ramshackle homes of Haiti's poor. Global warming turns gentle rains into torrents, washing away topsoil, and turning fertile land into wasteland. Rising Arctic temperatures — up 6 degrees since 1950 — are melting the ice cap. As this happens, rising salt water will poison aquifers, threatening drinking water.

Many in the industrialized world act like they will only be inconvenienced. "We'll stock up on bottled water, slather on the sunscreen, and stay cool." We already invest more energy per capita cooling people in Arizona than Norway does heating people north of the Arctic Circle.

Global warming knows no borders. Montana's majestic Glacier National Park will soon need a new name. When founded in 1910, it had 150 glaciers. Today it has fewer than 50 and U.S. Geological Survey experts expect the park's last glacier to trickle away in 30 years. Environmental changes, which generally come in geological time, should not be noticeable in a human life span ... but they are.

Global warming is a fact. CNN reports that since 1997, we've experienced the five hottest years on record (hottest, 1998; second-hottest, 2002; third-hottest, 2003; fourth-hottest, 2001; fifth-hottest, 1997). Scientists agree that the greenhouse effect is warming up the planet, human emissions of carbon dioxide contribute to this greenhouse effect, and global warming is already changing the Earth in dangerous ways. For scientists, the remaining unknowns are how bad it might get ... and how fast it might happen.

So far, the world's best attempt to slow global warming is a treaty called the Kyoto Protocol. This pact aims to combat climate change by reducing worldwide carbon-dioxide emissions by 2010 (to about 6 percent below 1990 levels). So far, 126 countries (including all 25 members of the European Union) have ratified the pact.

But Kyoto can only go into effect when nations accounting for 55 percent of the industrialized world's emissions have signed up. And until now, two of the biggest polluters, the United States (the planet's worst, emitting 25 percent of the world's carbon dioxide, with less than 5 percent of the world's population) and Russia had not signed on, so the treaty is stalled.

But Russia just signaled that it will ratify the Kyoto Protocol. When it does, the treaty will go into effect. While the U.S. remains the lone major holdout, American corporations doing business overseas will need to play by its rules. For instance, as Boeing will be selling airplanes to countries abiding by Kyoto standards, it will be competitive only if it produces low-emission planes.

The Bush administration had long held that it's not clear that global warming is actually happening. More recently, it acknowledges the phenomenon but proposes to do very little about it. Administration officials question how directly industrial pollution contributes to the problem. And our government claims it's not fair for the U.S. to take on such a huge cost to solve the problem, when the Kyoto Protocol demands less of poor countries like India and China.

Global climate change is like a huge ocean liner — once in motion, it can be stopped, but not suddenly and not without a lot of effort. We've already created the climate in which our grandchildren will swelter. What we can do is prevent catastrophe for their grandchildren.

The rest of the world sees global warming as a manmade problem with manmade solutions. Finding solutions will help build stronger, more sustainable economies. America needs advocates eloquent enough to communicate the nature of this problem and an electorate enlightened enough to listen. And we need political leadership bold enough to use real science rather than big-business interests to shape environmental policy. America should be leading this battle.

Regardless of what our country decides to do, I'll be taking good photos of sights and experiences my grandchildren may not have the opportunity to enjoy. Many quintessential European experiences are destined to become just memories, like old photos of romantic mountaineers frolicking on glacier-filled Swiss valleys.

I walk those valleys today — they are rocky and desolate, with a distant tongue of ice halfway up the mountain in rapid retreat. Summer skiing in the Alps? That was back in the 20th century. And Dutch boys skating? You'll see them in paintings at the Rijksmuseum.

Edmonds resident Rick Steves spends four months a year in Europe, writing guidebooks, leading tours, developing his ricksteves.com Web site, and producing a public-television series.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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