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US takes the lead in trashing planet

FOR MORE than four years, President Bush has told us he needs to see the ''sound science" on global warming before joining the rest of the world in combating it. In June 2001, he brushed off criticism of his pullout from the Kyoto Protocol, saying: ''It was not based upon science. The stated mandates in the Kyoto treaty would affect our economy in a negative way."

A year later, Bush's own Environmental Protection Agency put out a report that the burning of fossil fuels in the human activities of industry and automobiles are huge contributors to the greenhouse effect. He publicly trashed the report, embarrassing then-EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, saying, ''I read the report put out by the bureaucracy."

Now comes a new study, by a bureaucracy representing just about the whole planet. It is the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, commissioned by the United Nations in 2000 at a cost of $24 million and compiled by 1,360 experts from 95 countries. It is the latest in dire reports as to how we are doing the planet in and, implicitly, how the United States puts its interests and pollution over the welfare of the rest of the planet.

The report said human beings, whose numbers have doubled to 6 billion, have changed the world's ecosystems more in the last 50 years than in any other period in our pursuit of food, fuel, water, and wood products. More land was converted to agriculture since World War II than in the 18th and 19th centuries combined.

Those conversions, aggravated by the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, have led to 10 to 30 percent of mammal, bird, and amphibian species facing the threat of extinction. Highlights of what we have already lost in the last 50 years include: 20 percent of the world's coral reefs, with another 20 percent seriously degraded, and 35 percent of the world's mangroves.

The dilemma is that many of the changes in agricultural, fishing, and industrial technology have had incredible benefits for human beings, including the reduction of hunger and poverty. But in the process, 60 percent of the services the world's ecosystems provide, from basic food to disease management to aesthetic enjoyment, have been degraded. One example that is particularly painful in New England and Atlantic Canada is the collapse of fishing stocks.

''Any progress achieved in addressing the goals of poverty and hunger eradication, improved health, and environmental protection is unlikely to be sustained if most of the ecosystem services on which humanity relies continue to be degraded," the study said.

The study offered several scenarios of how humans can halt the degrading of the planet. The most obvious strategies involve a global economy where the sharing of education, skills, technology, and resources leads to a reduction in poverty and pressures on local environments. The worst possible scenario is one called ''Order from Strength," which results in ''a regionalized and fragmented world, concerned with security and protection, emphasizing primarily regional markets, paying little attention to public goods, and taking a reactive approach to ecosystem problems."

That precisely describes the United States. We consume a quarter of the world's energy, are the world's leading contributor to the greenhouse gases of global warming, and take advantage of agriculture in all parts of the world so we can have fresh peaches, peppers, and berries 365 days a year if we wish. Not surprisingly, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment has been out for two weeks and there has not been a peep out of the administration on it -- the same administration that needed no sound science on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The assessment was cochaired by the World Bank's chief scientist, Robert Watson. Watson was formerly NASA's chief environmental scientist and environmental adviser in the Clinton administration. Watson said two weeks ago that the study reinforces his belief that climate change ''may become the most dominant threat to ecological systems over the next hundred years."

The World Bank has been in the news for other reasons, being so important to Bush that he had the right-wing defense hawk Paul Wolfowitz installed as president. It will be interesting, once Wolfowitz -- hardly known for his caring about birds, insects, and Iraqi civilians -- is fully in power, how much more Watson and the World Bank will speak out about how we are doing ourselves in. Watson speaks for 1,360 experts from 95 countries. It's only a matter of time before we hear Wolfowitz saying, ''I read the report put out by the bureaucracy."

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is jackson@globe.com.

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