American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program


Government Affairs Report: The Many Facets of Global Climate Change (12/98)

The following column by GAP Senior Advisor John Dragonetti is reprinted from the December 1998 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.

According to existing climate records, the five hottest years since the Middle Ages have occurred during the 1990s. The warmest September since modern record-keeping began was in 1998. Most scientists agree that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are accumulating in the atmosphere and that worldwide temperatures are rising. As proof of global warming, they point to the accelerated melting of the world's glaciers, the loss of ice mass in the Alps, significant damage to major coral reefs, and the shifting migratory patterns of birds and insects. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted that the average global temperature will increase 2 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit with an accompanying sea level rise of 6 to 37 inches by 2100.

Many of the world's leading climate researchers from over a hundred nations participating in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agree that climate change is real and involves discernible human influence. They contend it is only the magnitude of these changes and the impacts they will have throughout the world that are uncertain. The two major sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States apparently come from automobiles and power plants - especially the older coal-fired facilities. Published estimates indicate that overall emissions of greenhouse gases have been growing at about 1 percent per year worldwide.

Against this backdrop, policymakers in the United States and around the world are trying to decide what is to be done about global warming. At the same time, scientists are seeking to reduce the uncertainties and better constrain the many variables inherent to a system as complex as global climate. Earth scientists in particular are working to clarify the natural climate variability upon which the current carbon dioxide buildup is being superimposed. Our profession clearly has much to contribute, and AIPG is working to develop a position statement on climate change that reflects the knowledge, interests, and concerns of its membership.

The United Nations
In early November, thousands of government officials representing 180 nations met in Buenos Aires, Argentina to promote international efforts for limiting the emissions of greenhouse gases. The conference, formally entitled the fourth session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP4), was convened to initiate mechanisms intended to achieve the emission-reduction targets established in Kyoto, Japan in December 1997. That agreement, labeled the Kyoto Protocol, set emission targets solely for industrialized nations, thereby setting the stage for extraordinary controversy.

The affected industrialized nations, particularly the US, are troubled by the potentially enormous economic and political costs associated with emission reduction. The Kyoto Protocol requires the U.S. to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Some contend that this would require an over 40 percent decrease from the emissions levels forecast for that period under a business-as-usual scenario. The Department of Energy predicts average energy costs could increase as much as 83 percent, and the Energy Information Administration calculates a 50 percent increase in the cost of gasoline to comply with the Kyoto agreement.

There is also concern over the developing countries disinclination to undertake voluntary actions to reduce their increasingly significant emissions. Many of the developing nations would prefer to wait until the developed nations have demonstrated attainment of their Kyoto targets before adopting emissions limitations themselves. The developing countries, and especially the emerging economies of China, India, Indonesia and Mexico, are expected to more than offset any emission reductions made by developed countries by early in the next century. Moreover, it is perfectly logical to expect mining, petroleum refining, chemical manufacturing and other energy-intensive production to escape the limits imposed on the industrialized nations by relocating to developing countries not subject to emission limits under the Kyoto Protocol.

Conversely, some point to voluntary actions in China, Mexico and India to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and argue that such actions are simply sound economics. They further argue that the industrialized nations have the technological capacity to act now in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol, and thereby should assume the leadership role in curbing emissions.

The controversy is not solely between the developed and less developed nations. The Buenos Aires conference opened with a rift among the developing nations as China and others blocked a proposal by host Argentina (backed by the US) to increase their efforts to limit global warming.

The Administration
The Clinton administration has characterized global warming as one of the greatest environmental challenges of the next century. They convey a great urgency for immediate action and are pressing for adoption of the Kyoto agreement. A Climate Change Coordinator position has been created at the White House. As the centerpiece of a strategy to meet the Kyoto targets, the Administration has advanced the concept of "emissions trading" to reduce the accumulation of greenhouse gases. This free market plan would concentrate investments in those countries where there is the greatest opportunity to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The major obstacle to this scheme is that it calls for emission quotas which would be extremely difficult to allocate.

The President's Fiscal Year 1999 budget request included over $1 billion for climate change technology initiatives to support research and development in energy efficiency and renewable energy. This represents a 25 percent increase for these activities aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions through new programs targeted toward energy efficiency in buildings, industry, transportation and electricity generation.

The Congress
The opposition to the Kyoto agreement in the Senate began even before the conference took place. That was clearly demonstrated by the 95-0 vote for the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, authored by Senators Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE). The resolution declared that a climate change treaty could be ratified by the Senate only if two conditions were met. The first was that developing countries must also be subject to emissions restrictions, and the second was that the treaty must not result in serious economic damage to the United States. As an indication of how incendiary the issue had become, "riders" were attached to several appropriations bills this year to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency and other executive branch agencies from even educating the public about any aspects of the Kyoto Protocol.

In an effort to reconcile the differences between the White House and the Senate, Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) joined Senators John Chafee (R-RI) and Connie Mack (R-FL) to introduce a bill entitled The Credit for Early Action Act (S. 2617). This legislation would provide tax credit to companies that reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. The proposal will be re-introduced in the new Congress.

Conclusion
Global warming is a reality. Whether or not human activity is the dominant force is unclear, but it is certainly a contributing factor. The problem has been decades or centuries in the making, and it is reasonable to expect that it may take as much time to correct. With each passing day, more governmental and industrial organizations have developed or are formulating positions on global climate change. As might be expected, such groups include the National Environmental Trust, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the World Wildlife Fund, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, and the Business Roundtable. In addition to AIPG, a number of other geoscience organizations such as the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Geological Institute are seeking to develop statements on this issue. Recently General Motors, Monsanto, Shell, British Petroleum, United Technologies, and IBM have initiated policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps the most engaging, if not self-serving, is the position taken by the Nuclear Energy Institute, which proclaims that nuclear energy provides a zero-emission source of electricity.

The Government Affairs Column is a bimonthly feature written by John Dragonetti. John Dragonetti is the Senior Advisor the American Geological Institute's Government Affairs Program.


This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

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

Contributed by John Dragonetti, AGI Government Affairs.

Posted December 21, 1998


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