October 22, 1997
President Clinton has announced a plan to bring the levels of greenhouse gases back to 1990 levels by the year 2012. The proposal includes gradual, but mandatory, reductions in carbon dioxide and methane emissions. This background report is followed by a debate with analysts on both sides of the global warming issue.
MARGARET WARNER: Leaders from more than 160 nations will meet in Kyoto, Japan six weeks from now to negotiate a treaty setting binding caps on greenhouse gas emissions of energy use. Their objective is to reduce the phenomenon known as global warming. Today, in a speech to the National Geographic Society, President Clinton laid out the administration's approach going into the talks.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
October 22, 1997:
Three experts debate whether there is a greenhouse effect, and what to do about it.
June 25, 1997:
President Clinton is backing the EPA's push for tougher air quality standards, but critics say they're too costly.
February 18, 1997:
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new clean air standardsthat have been criticized by some industry, state and local officials.
March 6, 1997:
The fastest rise in temperature for perhaps ten thousand years is having a dramatic effect on the brittle ecosystem of Antarctica.
January 4, 1996
British meteorologists report that the Earth's surface temperature was higher than the average in 1995.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of science and the environment.
The EPA's Global Warming Site.
"One of the most important challenges of the 21st century."
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Today we have a clear responsibility and a golden opportunity to conquer one of the most important challenges of the 21st century--the challenge of climate change--with an environmentally sound and economically strong strategy to achieve meaningful reductions in greenhouse gases in the United States and throughout the industrialized and the developing world. It is a strategy that, if properly implemented, will create a wealth of new opportunities for new entrepreneurs at home, uphold our leadership abroad, and harness the power of free markets to free our planet from an unacceptable risk.
The debate began in 1988 with unusually high temperatures.
MARGARET WARNER: The global warming issue is a controversial one. The intense public debate dates from the brutally hot summer of 1988--average world-wide temperatures hit record highs for the first five months of the year. And drought conditions in the United States caused half of the nation's farmlands to be declared disaster areas.
There was also heat on Capitol Hill. NASA scientist James Hansen told a Senate committee that the warming trend of the 1980's, which included five of the hottest years on record, could not have been caused by Mother Nature alone.
DR. JAMES HANSEN, NASA: (1988) The global warming is now large enough that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship to the greenhouse effect.
MARGARET WARNER: Up until 1988, the so-called "greenhouse effect"--that is, the theory that climatic warming is caused by manmade pollutants--had been considered a highly debatable scientific hypothesis. But since then, the theory has drawn many converts from the scientific community.
The greenhouse effect defined....
The theory goes something like this: Light radiates from the sun, travels through space; penetrates our atmosphere, and hits the earth. The earth absorbs some of the energy as heat, and reflects some of it back into space. Warming occurs when some of that reflected heat --which otherwise would escape--gets trapped by carbon dioxide and other gases caused by human activities like driving.
That trapped heat, so the theory goes, makes the Earth even warmer, a process that scientists call the greenhouse effect. The earth has become about one degree Fahrenheit warmer this century. Some climate experts predict that the planet could become up to six degrees warmer in the next century. That could cause coastal flooding, disrupted agricultural patterns, and damage to the health of wildlife, animal life, and humans unaccustomed to the new conditions.
But not everyone agrees about the extent--much less the cause--of global warming. Some skeptics dispute the scientific data and calculations underlying the entire theory. Others don't dispute the earth is growing slightly warmer but say that isn't necessarily a dangerous trend. The scientific battle has spilled over into the policymaking arena.
At the earth summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the U.S. and more than 150 other countries agreed to voluntarily cut back their greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. But in fact, the opposite trend has developed in many countries. Just this week, the Energy Department reported that in 1996, U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases increased by 3.4 percent.
Two years ago, the countries that signed the Rio document concluded that the voluntary limits hadn't worked and that mandatory caps would be required. They left open until Kyoto the issues of the level of those caps, and the timetable for meeting them. But the negotiators did agree they would exempt developing countries from the caps negotiated in Kyoto on the theory that imposing limits on them now would too severely retard their economic growth.
The President's proposal
The proposal laid out by the President today includes these key features: Industrialized countries must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels within the 2008 to 2012 timeframe; the Europeans and Japanese have proposed lower caps and more rigid timetables. The U.S. will not accept a treaty unless it also requires developing countries to participate. The president will ask Congress to appropriate $5 billion in tax cuts and incentives to promote innovation and reward companies that meet the goals earlier; after 10 years the participating countries will launch a new international system of emissions credits that would allow companies and countries to barter the right to pollute. The President insisted today that making these changes would actually benefit American business.
"Climate change can bring us together."
PRESIDENT CLINTON: The lesson here is simple. Environmental initiatives, if sensibly designed, flexibly implemented, cost less than expected and provide unforeseen economic opportunities. So while we recognize this challenge we take on today is larger than any environmental mission we have accepted in the past, climate change can bring us together around what America does best. We innovate; we compete; we find solutions to problems, and we do it in a way that promotes entrepreneurship and strengthens the American economy.
This background report is followed by a debate with analysts on both sides of the global warming issue.