Scientists agree that climate change is a problem, but the debate about how to respond is still raging.
With the Kyoto Protocol’s global process bogging down, a parallel strategy of smaller, focused negotiations to achieve partial solutions could put the world back on the right path. For the twelfth consecutive year, nearly 190 nations convened in November 2006, this time in Nairobi, to address the critical issue of climate change. Unfortunately, the atmosphere at these two-week annual conclaves most resembles a medieval trade fair: a hearty reunion of thousands of well-tailored diplomats (some countries send as many as 100 representatives), plus additional thousands of nongovernmental “observers,” some manning colorful information booths, others intent on picturesque mayhem to attract squadrons of riot police. Hundreds of media representatives also join the party in search of a provocative sound bite or an attention-grabbing image.
Global warming is a stealth issue in U.S. foreign policy. Even as the effects of mounting carbon dioxide (CO2) begin to make themselves felt, and huge multinationals such as General Electric and Shell announce their own plans of action, the U.S. government still acts as if there is no urgency to the task of cutting CO2 emissions. The moment will shortly be upon us when a solution is needed, fast.
Incompatibility between the definitions used by science and policy organizations is an obstacle to effective action. Believe it or not, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), focused on international policy, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), focused on scientific assessments in support of the FCCC, use different definitions of climate change. The two definitions are not compatible, certainly not politically and perhaps not even scientifically. This lack of coherence has contributed to the current international stalemate on climate policy, a stalemate that matters because climate change is real and actions are needed to improve energy policies and to reduce the vulnerability of people and ecosystems to climate effects.
A sensible middle-of-the-road alternative exists between the defective Kyoto Protocol and do-nothing policy. Global climate change policy has reached a stalemate. Europe, Canada, and Japan have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, but it now appears that Russia probably will not, and the Bush administration has ruled out U.S. participation. The treaty puts no obligations on developing countries to curb their rapidly growing emissions. Even if Russia joins and the Kyoto Protocol takes effect, the absence of the world's largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters--the United States and China--means that Kyoto will have little impact on future climate change. If the European Union (EU) and other countries proceed with a rump version of the Kyoto regime, it will accomplish even less. Although bills in the Senate and action by the states continue to inch along, the impact of local policies on a global problem is doubtful. Neither of the polar options typically posed for U.S. policy--join Europe in the Kyoto Protocol or stay out and do nothing--is satisfactory.
Approximately 50 years ago, the first contemporary stirring within the scientific community about climate change began when Roger Revelle and Hans Suess wrote that "human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment." Since that time, the scientific community has made remarkable progress in defining the effect that increased concentrations of greenhouse gases could have on the global climate and in estimating the nature and scale of the consequences. The political discussion about how to respond to this threat has been less successful.
A dozen years ago, the debate over controlling emissions of greenhouse gases was just beginning. Several European countries were calling for either a freeze or a 20 percent cut in emissions by the developed world by 2000. In the United States, Congress asked its now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to evaluate the potential for reductions in this country. Its report, which we helped develop, outlined both the technologies and the mix of regulatory and market-based federal policies that would be necessary to significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades.
Despite a lack of leadership from the federal government, a ground swell of activity to cut emissions of greenhouse gases is emerging throughout the United States. Although the signs of global warming are becoming ever more prominent, casual observers of the media in the United States or Europe might easily conclude that U.S. citizens are in denial about climate change, refusing to take responsibility for controlling their emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and the other greenhouse gases (GHGs) that cause global warming. Although it is true that the federal government remains stalemated on how to deal with climate change, the notion that no climate action is taking place in this country is erroneous. The most intriguing story is what has been happening in state legislatures, at city council meetings, and in corporate boardrooms, as well as on college campuses, in community groups, and in a range of other local settings. Across the nation, numerous climate action programs are moving aggressively to reduce emissions of GHGs.
Effective action on climate change depends on the willingness of the climate science community to support new research priorities. What happens when the scientific community's responsibility to society conflicts with its professional self interest? In the case of research related to climate change the answer is clear: Self interest trumps responsibility. In 1989, Senator Al Gore provided this justification for the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP): "More research and better research and better targeted research is absolutely essential if we are to eliminate the remaining areas of uncertainty and build the broader and stronger political consensus." Over the next 13 years, the nation spent more than billion on research under the USGCRP, with the promise that new fundamental knowledge about the climate system was a crucial prerequisite for effective policymaking. During this time, the politics of climate change have become more intractable, and the path toward scientific certainty much more challenging.
The Bonn accord has given the United States the leverage to rewrite its short-term obligations and to lead the way to a long-term energy revolution. Eight months after the international community's startling failure in The Hague to agree on how to implement the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change, some 180 national delegations, along with thousands of nongovernmental (NGO) and media representatives, somewhat gloomily reassembled in Bonn in the summer of 2001. Their goal was to revive the nearly defunct draft treaty--with the United States demurring but not interfering. The embattled protocol, with its politically skewed emissions targets (too strong for many industrialized economies in the short term, yet meaningless for mitigating climate change in the long run) was still relevant mainly because, in the words of conference president Jan Pronk of the Netherlands, "it's the only game in town."
The potential for abrupt, drastic climate changes on a regional scale is being underestimated by policymakers. The debate on global warming, framed on one side by those who see a long-term gradual warming of global surface temperatures and on the other side by those who see only small and potentially beneficial changes, misses a very important possibility. A real threat is that the greenhouse effect may trigger unexpected climate changes on a regional scale and that such changes may happen fairly quickly, last for a long time, and bring devastating consequences. Yet, U.S. and global programs designed to study human-caused climate change do not adequately address this regional threat. The nation needs to develop a larger, more comprehensive, and better focused set of programs to improve our ability to predict regional climate change.
The Kyoto Protocol's targets are impeding our efforts to deal with climate change. The emissions targets of the Kyoto Protocol are dead, and the international community should let them rest in peace. Diplomatic necessity may require that the United Nations (UN) and signatory states to the treaty refrain from officially proclaiming their passing, but they should still be allowed to go quietly. Quantified emissions targets and timetables embody flaws so severe that they cannot be fixed by incremental adjustments. Happily, we can address the problems of climate change, including reducing the production of greenhouse gases (GHGs), in other ways. As Daniel Sarewitz of the Center for Science Policy and Outcomes and Roger Pielke, Jr. of the National Center for Atmospheric Research recently pointed out, measures to reduce people's vulnerability to extreme weather events in the short run can move societies toward a longer-run adaptive climate strategy. In terms of mitigating climate change, James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and his collaborators have suggested a scenario in which the international community focuses on reducing non-CO2 GHGs first, leaving the problems of significantly reducing fossil fuel consumption for later. As to that latter goal, both international and domestic programs already exist that, with some modification and better financing, could facilitate a move to a more sustainable energy system. Spending time fighting over the Protocol emissions targets will just delay getting to the important tasks of making desperately needed improvements in the environmental and social conditions of the world's people.
Future actions in response to the threat of climate change should emphasize adaptation and new energy technology. The international agreement concluded in Kyoto, Japan, during the first two weeks of December 1997 to limit greenhouse gas emissions to forestall climate warming is variously portrayed as a success or a failure. It was both. The road to Kyoto was pitted with political, economic, and scientific potholes. It is now on to Buenos Aires in November 1998 for another Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change. To what end?
Emissions trading between companies and countries provides a cost-effective means of achieving the Kyoto Protocol's goals. In December 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, representatives of 159 countries agreed to a protocol to limit the world's emissions of greenhouse gases. Now comes the hard part: how to achieve the reductions. Emissions trading offers a golden opportunity for a company or country to comply with emissions limits at the lowest possible cost.
The current plan to execute the Kyoto Protocol will waste vast sums of money for little environmental gain. A smarter, longer-term implementation plan will reduce global warming more effectively and efficiently. The Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is an agreement of historic proportions. Finally, the world is treating global warming seriously. The protocol could put us on a course that is less polluting, less damaging to agriculture and the international economy, and less threatening to human health. However, the protocol as written forces nations and industries into a crash program to slow global warming by dramatically reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 2010. The cost to enact the short-term plan will be unnecessarily excessive, and will actually make it more difficult to reach the fundamental emissions reductions required to stabilize the atmosphere for generations to come. The very same slowdown of global warming can be achieved more effectively and for far less cost, however, if a smarter implementation policy with a longer-term view is crafted. Emissions reductions would be phased in over more years, in parallel with the natural replacement of aging equipment, placing much less of a burden on industries and governments worldwide.
The scientific case for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is perceived to be changing, but the political barriers remain daunting. Scientific developments and a change in U.S. policy have shifted the terms of the discussions that will take place in June 1997 at the conference of parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Growing scientific confidence about the role of human activity in global climate change and the willingness of the United States to consider binding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will force the conference participants to address the issue of climate change more directly and to consider immediate and far-reaching measures. But this is not a problem that can be solved by science alone. Reaching agreement on targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions for the period beyond the turn of the century will be difficult because of the deep-seated differences between rich and poor nations, between coastal countries and fossil-fuel rich nations, and between various other factions.