Last November, delegates from almost all of the world's countries met in Buenos Aires to answer a question posed six years earlier in Rio de Janeiro: How to control the emissions of greenhouse gases? At their meeting in Kyoto in December 1997, representatives of the developed countries (plus those from several countries in transition from socialist economies) had agreed to a program for reducing these emissions, the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change. After Kyoto, however, their governments did virtually nothing to carry out these commitments, and it is fair to say that nothing of consequence took place in Buenos Aires either. The delegates there agreed only to a "plan of action" designed to resolve some uncertainties about how the Protocol could--or even whether it should--be implemented late in the year 2000. Given the closeness of the target date, the high cost of meeting it, and hostile politics in the United States and elsewhere, it is now clear that the Kyoto Protocol will not be carried out as planned.
The concern is the growing concentration of so-called "greenhouse gases"--and particularly carbon dioxide--in the earth's atmosphere. The carbon dioxide concentration, which was 280 parts per million in the pre-industrial era, is now 360 per million and is currently on a path to reach between 600 and 700 by the end of the next century. Experts fear this rise will produce a large, damaging and possibly catastrophic increase in the atmosphere's temperature. In 1995 an eminent group of atmospheric scientists asserted that such a greenhouse-induced effect had probably been detected.