By Zachary Slobig
What are the latest scientific findings, and what’s the international policy response to climate change?
In June 2008, the Climate Security Act, a cap-and-trade proposal akin to the Kyoto Protocol, failed to pass a majority vote in the U.S. Senate. Legislators worried that the act would have required a major overhaul of U.S. energy policy and might have raised fuel costs, something to which many Republican senators objected. The bill aimed to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 66 percent below 2005 levels by midcentury through tough industry regulations and carbon caps. Both U.S. presidential nominees supported the bill, though Bush vowed to veto it.
The Kyoto Protocol
The Science Behind Climate Change
Twenty years ago, the United Nations set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to evaluate scientifically the human impact on climate change. During that time, the panel has released four reports, the last one in 2007. Here’s a look at the panel’s findings and recommendations, and how it has shaped global policy.
1990 – First Assessment Report
The report indicated that sea levels and surface temperatures were rising and that world grain production was threatened. Additionally, it called for an immediate 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity.
When U.S. President George H.W. Bush was questioned about the conclusions of the report in Honolulu, at a meeting of South Pacific nations, many of which face destruction from rising sea levels. The president said, “My scientists are telling me something very different.” Bush was relying on research suggesting that an expected decrease in sunspot activity would offset global warming. Skeptics at the time argued that since meteorologists could not predict the weather, climatologists certainly could not predict climate change and many considered that warming trends were simply part of the earth’s natural cycle.
1995 – Second Assessment Report
When the second report was released in 1995, many of the findings could be distilled to, “The earth is warming, and it is likely our fault.” The panel furiously debated the wording of a single phrase: "The balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate." The panel noted the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had risen 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution. Though the IPCC is not a policy-making body, the findings seemed to settle the debate over whether humans have influenced climate change, allowing the focus of future summits to rest on just what to do about it.
2001 – Third Assessment Report
In 2001, the panel reported that global warming was happening faster than previously predicted and strengthened earlier findings that human activities were to blame. The panel warned that stabilizing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere at a containable level of around 450 parts per million over the next few decades would require global carbon emissions to drop below their 1990 levels and remain there for up to the 200 years.
2007 – Fourth Assessment Report
In its landmark 2007 study, the panel had dropped qualifiers and ambiguities, stating for the first time that global warming is “unequivocal” and that human activity is the main driver, very likely causing most of the rise in temperatures since 1950. The report maintained that the harmful consequences of climate change, including long-term ice loss on the arctic, loss of species and diversity from the Great Barrier Reef to the mountains of Europe, increasing strains on water resources, and a decade of the warmest global surface temperatures since records began in 1860, could only be mitigated by immediate action. The panel recommended an overhaul of the world’s energy structure, with a major commitment to switch from coal to natural gas, to increase nuclear power output and to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and biomass. (China, it should be noted, is building one coal-fired power plant every week.) The panel also encouraged increased development of carbon capture and storage technologies.
Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program issued a statement on February 2, 2007, the day the fourth assessment report came out. ''In our daily lives,” the letter explained, “we all respond urgently to dangers that are much less likely than climate change to affect the future of our children. February 2nd will be remembered as the date when uncertainty was removed as to whether humans had anything to do with climate change on this planet. The evidence is on the table.''
The Bush administration, which had long found fault with research suggesting that humans were harmfully warming the planet, accepted the findings. President Bush’s energy secretary, Samuel Bodman, said the report "makes clear human activity contributes to climate changes and the issue is no longer up for debate." He reaffirmed, however, the entrenched resistance to the Kyoto Protocol. “There is a concern within this administration, which I support, that the imposition of a carbon cap in this country may lead to the transfer of jobs and industry abroad to a country that does not have such a carbon cap.”
Laying the Foundations for Future Policy
The series of IPCC reports remains the most exhaustive and respected body of work focusing on the science and impacts of climate change. It is the gold standard in the field, but some environmentalists argue that the widely circulated summaries of each of the four reports are too conservative in their exposition of the dangers of climate change. WWF, the international conservation organization, actually issued its own summaries of IPCC reports, with additional information gathered from the full reports.
Receiving the Nobel Peace Prize has given the IPCC moral authority to advocate for emissions reduction on a policy level, but the body’s real impact will be measured by the scope of international agreements after 2012 when the Kyoto Protocol expires. The next U.S. Presidential administration, be it under John McCain or Barack Obama, will likely be far more committed to addressing climate change than the current administration.
With both China and India committed to cooperating on building a post-Kyoto accord, real progress in curbing global carbon emissions may become more tenable in the next 10 years. That’s also, according to many climate experts, the time we have left to avert catastrophic climate change.
Sources: BBC, CIA World Factbook, Clean Development Mechanism, Greenpeace, The Guardian, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Kyoto Protocol, NewsWeek, The New York Times, The Pew Center United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, World Resources Institute, Worldwatch Institute.