Winner Take Nothing

Michael H. Glantz
29 April

Winner Take Nothing


"Winner Take Nothing" is the title of a collection of short stories by American author Ernest Hemingway published in 1933, four years after "A Farewell to Arms" was written. The title caught my eye and sparked my curiosity. It got me to thinking about an issue of great concern to many people and governments, not just environmentalists: the climate change issue. Although we use the phrase "climate change," what we are really talking about is "global warming."

Many scientists believe that global warming of the atmosphere has been caused by human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas). The use of such fuels releases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Other human activities that contribute to global warming include tropical deforestation, the use of certain nitrogen fertilizers in agriculture and, until recently, the rapid increase in CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) emissions.

The Kyoto Protocol is an amendment to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty on global warming. It also reaffirms sections of the UNFCCC. Countries which ratify this Protocol commit to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases, or engage in emissions trading if they maintain or increase emissions of these gases. A total of 141 countries have ratified the agreement. Notable exceptions include the United States and Australia (

Following several years awaiting the necessary quota for ratification, the Kyoto Protocol finally went into force as a legal binding instrument in early 2005, when Russia's President Putin signed it in late 2004. The Protocol was designed to begin the process, at least, that would lead to a reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (CFCs, NOx, and CH4) emitted into the atmosphere. Almost all countries around the globe, especially the major producers of greenhouse gases (with the exception of the US and Australia) have agreed to reduce their GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. Only a few months after President Bush took office in January 2001, he announced to the world that he would not ratify the Protocol and that the Kyoto process was a dead issue. To their credit, however, European countries (Japan, Canada, among many others) ratified the Protocol, choosing to work together to reduce GHGs in spite of Bush's opposition.

However, from President Bush's perspective, he won. He managed to avoid committing the US to the constraints on its industry of a Kyoto-imposed quota on the amount of GHGs it would be allowed to emit in a given period of time. The Republicans in the Congress won, because they helped to support the president on an issue of great personal interest. The Republican senators from Alaska won, because they got the president's support to open up the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil exploration. As for the major energy companies, they too won, because they would still be able to sell their product in ever-increasing amounts; the future looks bright. The automobile industry seems content, because without signing the Kyoto Protocol they can continue to manufacture and market relatively expensive gas-guzzling SUVs and Hummers.

Pyrrhic victory [pir'-ik] noun:

A victory achieved at great or excessive cost, a ruinous victory.

But did the president, the Alaskan senators, the oil companies, and the auto manufacturers really win? The answer would have to be a resounding "YES" for their special interest groups, and maybe even for America and several of its fossil-fuel-dependent industries: a true domestic victory. However, from a different perspective, a longer-term one and an environmental one, it is easy to argue that the above groups have, in fact, won nothing in the long run, despite a gain in the short term: a short-term gain at the expense of long-term demise. Hence, the paradox of "winner take nothing."

The Kyoto process that began in 1997 was an attempt to avert dangerous changes in the climate system as a result of global warming. These changes are expected to become more obvious and more severe by the middle of the 21st century. No part of the globe is expected to be immune to global warming and its consequences for societies and for ecosystems. That includes the United States. In fact, the midlatitude countries are at higher risk of impacts.

Studies suggest that with a warmer atmosphere, the US Great Plains will become drier than at present. It is not yet clear what the adverse impacts will be on the agricultural production in the breadbasket of the United States, the Midwest. Scientists have noted for a long time that the temperatures in the higher (polar) latitudes will warm faster than in the midlatitudes (a degree of warming in the latter is expected to translate into a 3-4 degree warming in the higher latitudes). Alaska is expected to feel the adverse impacts of increases in global temperatures to a greater degree. Cities in the US are expected to witness an increase in the intensity, duration, and location of heat waves, causing more human fatalities.

And then there are the coastal cities, especially the mega-cities or sprawling low-lying metropolitan coastal areas: San Francisco, Galveston, New Orleans, Miami, New York, Rotterdam, Shanghai, Bankok, and so forth. They will be subjected to an increase in the frequency and intensity of tropical storms, storm surges, incremental sea level rise, and flooding.

The point of all this is that what may appear to be a global warming "win" really turns out to be a global warming "loss." All is not lost, though, with regard to getting the national government (in the American case, President Bush) to take action to combat global warming. Sometimes governments lead their people to take appropriate actions related to confronting a critical environmental problem. At other times (and it is the hope for America at present), the people, groups, cities and states end up leading their governments to take action because of their own political action, or the actions they take at the local level to resolve environmental problems.

--Michael H. Glantz

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