American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program


The Road to Kyoto

The following article appears as a news note in the December 1997 issue of Geotimes. It is reprinted with permission.

Countries from around the world are meeting in Kyoto, Japan from December 1-10, 1997 to determine the best way to address global climate change. Negotiations will center around developing targets and timetables for reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

For the United States, the Kyoto meeting will be the culmination of much debate in Congress, the Administration, and the public over the science and economics surrounding climate change. Disagreement over the proper role for the United States, which emits 20% of the world's greenhouse gases, is evident in the fact that an official US position was not announced until just over a month before the conference. President Clinton summed up the difficulty in resolving climate change by stating that "it crosses the disciplines of environmental science, economics, technology, business, politics, international development, and global diplomacy."

The Road to Kyoto
International negotiation on climate change began in earnest during the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janerio, Brazil. During that summit, President Bush signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was a voluntary agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2000, a target that the US does not expect to meet. In 1995, the US signed the Berlin Mandate, which provides a negotiation process to reduce greenhouse gases after 2000. The Kyoto conference, with 169 countries participating, is the next stage in the process. The stated goal of the conference is to create binding targets and timetables to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Congressional Actions
Because the purpose of the Kyoto conference is to set binding limits for only developed countries, Congress has been concerned about the effect of such limits on the US economy. The Republican majority has questioned whether the benefits outweigh the costs as well as the credibility of scientific information. A series of congressional hearings has provided a forum for the many different viewpoints on climate change.

Several hearings focused on the science of climate change, as policymakers sought to ensure that regulations are commensurate with the problem. Many scientists testified in support of the findings of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of 2,500 scientists, which released a report in 1995 that stated "the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on climate." Getting a consensus on the amount of future warming, however, proved much more difficult. Because of the long time scale needed to see the effects of carbon dioxide on climate, scientists are dependent on models. Scientists noted that some of these models do not account for clouds, aerosols, or long-term natural climate changes, such as ice ages. Models have also provided a range of forecasts. Dr. Ronald Prinn of MIT testified that by using a variety of assumptions, models predictions for 2100 produced a sizable range of increases between 2-9 degrees Fahrenheit. The lack of specific forecasts and presence of significant uncertainties frustrated members of Congress: during an October 7 hearing Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) repeated his oft-quoted remark that global climate change is "at best unproven scientifically and at worst liberal claptrap." Prinn and others, however, testified that the effects of climate change are so great that waiting until we have definitive scientific data to make a decision is not responsible either.

Members of Congress repeatedly expressed concern that adopting an agreement in Kyoto may harm the United States economy. Representatives from industry and labor have testified that reducing carbon emissions would cause the cost of energy to skyrocket. Since energy is the basis for the American economy, rising energy costs would affect prices for all goods. Cecil Roberts, President of the United Mine Workers of America, testified that reductions "will result in lost jobs, lost economic output, lower wages, higher energy prices and higher trade deficits." On the other side, Dr. Janet Yellen, Chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, testified that by increasing the number of alternative energy sources, the economy can adapt more quickly. She emphasized market-based approaches and the need to consider economics when implementing new regulations.

The economic impact on the United States is also affected by which countries are included in the agreement. Under the current proposal, developing countries, such as China, India, and Mexico, would not be held to the same standards as developed nations. Critics warm that exempting those nations from limits could decrease both the effectiveness of the standards as well harm the American economy. The use of greenhouse gases in these countries is rapidly rising, and China is expected to surpass the United States in emissions by 2015. Additionally, witnesses testified that allowing these countries to emit more could reduce their production costs and put American products at a disadvantage.

To combat this possibility, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) introduced a resolution that the United States should not a sign an agreement that harmed the United States economically or did not hold developing countries to the same standard. The resolution passed the Senate unanimously in July, and the Administration has voiced its support for that position. In the House, Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) introduced a similar resolution, which has over 40 cosponsors, calling for the inclusion of developing countries in any agreement.

Administration Actions
Taking a very different tone from Congress, the Administration has embraced the need to take action on climate change. At a United Nations session in June, President Clinton announced that "the science is clear and compelling: We humans are changing the global climate," Since then, he has launched a campaign to educate the public and gain support for control measures. In September, he hosted a briefing for television weather forecasters to illustrate how climate change affects daily weather and encouraged them to talk to their viewers about climate change. A series of regional workshops culminated in a White House Conference on Climate Change on October 6 at Georgetown University. This conference focused on the reports of leading scientists that global warming is real and could lead to flooding, rampant disease, and loss of agricultural land.

It is clear that the agreement reached in Kyoto will not signal the end of the climate change debate in this country, but begin a new one on the best way for the US to meet the challenges set forth by the standards that are set.


Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by Kasey Shewey, AGI Government Affairs.

Last updated October 24, 1997

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