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Katrina, Rita are wake up calls
Enayet Rasul

          THE United States of America, the richest and most powerful country on earth, presents a pitiable picture today not very different from many poor Third World countries. The world press is seen awash with photos of human distresses in the wide storm affected areas of the US with people dead, homes turned into rubble, millions of people turned into refugees and reduced to homelessness and living in makeshift tent cities, outbreak of pestilence, anarchy and what not. The sights stupefy because people the world over are so accustomed to the US -- the mightiest and wealthiest country -- where life and living have been so orderly and qualitatively always improving over the centuries.
Natural disasters of the magnitude that struck the US this month were never before recorded in its history. The US also has had a very protected existence physically from the rest of the world. It fought two world wars in the last century but its own territories were virtually unscathed. Its forces rained deaths and destructions on other countries and peoples, but it remained a huge oasis of calm and prosperity amid the global troubles. But now, all of these perceptions of the US are things of the past. A big part of it has turned into a wasteland and recovery from it could notably strain even its massive available resources.
But should there be a tit-for-tat feelings in some countries due to such a humbled state of the richest and most powerful nation on earth that have been at times a source of their misery ? Should Vietnam or Japan, for example, find satisfaction that the US which bombed their cities to dust with conventional bombs and nukes is now suffering more or less of the same itself from nature's furies ? They should not for the simple reason of the world's economic interdependence. There cannot be any joy anywhere that the US is suffering because of the phenomenon called globalisation and the centrepoint of the US in it.
The countries of the world today in varying degrees are integrated with the world economy and in that global economy the US is by far the biggest player. The countries in south-east Asia that joined the league of the developed or semi-developed countries in the last century owe their economic upturn to trade surpluses they generated with the United States. For these countries, the United States was and still is the biggest and most lucrative market for their export products. Even for a poor developing country like Bangladesh, the US is the most coveted destination of its export trade. The poverty-stricken countries of Africa complain bitterly about the developed countries, including the US, not providing better market access to their products. But for them also, the US market is the prized one for whatever things of value they are successfully able to export to it and that too on preferential terms. Besides, notwithstanding the negative criticisms associated with aid money and aid giving countries, the US is also a major aid disbursing country. It funds a sizeable part of the resources of multilateral donor organisations such as the World Bank and the IMF.
What would happen with the US falling into economic hard times from natural disasters and drains of resources in the form of the Iraq war and other foreign entanglements ? The answer should be obvious. The same would whittle down its prosperity and curb its capacities to go on playing the role of the world's biggest buyer of the products of other countries. In that event, the export trade of the countries trading with the US could decline, creating loss of jobs, production and income in those countries. Thus, the decline of the US as the economic superpower cannot be a happy news for anybody in the present world of interdependent economies.
It was notable that Iran offered to supply oil promptly to the US at favourable prices to make up for the loss in the wake of hurricane Katrina that notably destroyed oil production facilities in the US and drove up prices of oil. Iran's offer was a sensible one aimed at stabilising the US economy and from that the world economy as well. Other oil producers need to act in the same way. They should realise that the shocks to the US economy is no ground for chance seeking or making a fast buck. They need to look at the bigger pie: the stabilisation of the global economy when that economy stands to suffer from a downturn in the US economy. There has to be ample realisation that we are all in the same boat and it is dangerous, therefore, to rock the boat.
The hurricanes also ought to shake up the US leadership, public opinion in that country, members of the US Congress and Senate, about the merit of steering their country at the fastest in line with the rest of the world in dealing with the emission of greenhouse gases. The gases and their role in earth warming was established above controversy long ago by an international panel of scientists drawn from different countries and working under the aegis of the United Nations. The findings of the panel led to global conferences and signing of a major protocol -- the Kyoto Protocol. It aimed to take the steps to facilitate reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases significantly to a lower level by the year 2010. The protocol has been ratified by 120 countries, so far, including most of the developed countries which emit the bulk of the greenhouse gases. But the biggest emission source of the greenhouse gases is the United States. It has not signed the Kyoto Protocol and this means that its effectiveness remains drastically reduced.
The kind of unprecedented storms in their fury that wrecked such great havoc in the US were not unpredicted. Leading scientists who worked in the UN panel on climate change have been cautioning about the occurrence of such storms as the earth warming proceeds without a brake from poor progress of the Kyoto protocol mainly as a consequence of the negative US response to it. They not only predicted these terrible storms but also warned about their greater frequency and intensity. The projections of the scientists have been uncannily fulfilled with the blowing over of Katrina followed in quick succession by Rita. Both storms were very severe in their intensity and both occurred at short intervals; storms of lesser intensity have more regularly visited the south-eastern coasts of the US in recent years. Both the hurricanes -- Katrina and Rita -- appear to have rung alarm bells that such storms could be regular affairs from now on. A top UN official made a prediction to this effect in the last week. He explained Katrina and Rita as the outcome of unchecked global warming and renewed a call to all to take the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol and implementation of its individual implementation schedule, very seriously. It should be abundantly clear that this urging applies most to the US.
The very great destructions and dislocations caused by the storms should now set the stage for a swift change in the attitude of the US towards the Kyoto Protocol. The storms have provided the evidential scientific certainty of the link between the earth warming and the storms. The same should now rationally persuade its leaders to lose no time in ratifying the Kyoto Protocol and engage in measures at the earliest to bring down the emission of greenhouse gases. The continuing failure of President Bush and his administration to do this will mean keeping exposed the United States and the world to the great perils from climate change. The countries of the world will need to put pressure on the US from now on to agree to reduction of greenhouse gases under the Kyoto framework. They must do this for the safety and well-being of all countries and peoples who inhabit planet earth.


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