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Climate change
2.10.06
Science and Health:
The Political Climate
More on This Story:
Climate Change at the start of 2006

The year 2005 turned out to be very hot in terms of global warming — scientifically and politically. On December 15, 2005, NASA announced that for the fourth year in a row, it has recorded the hottest annual global temperatures since reliable records started in the late 1800s. The report has led to holiday-themed headlines "Why Santa May Soon Need a Boat — But It's No Joke," from ABC and even to a lawsuit against the U.S. government on behalf of polar bears, protected under The Endangered Species Act.

But it's the political heat on global warming — focused mainly on the United States — that really made news in 2005. The year began with the U.S. administration's biggest foreign ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair making global warming one of his two top priorities for the year. Indeed, early in 2006 the UK government issued a report suggesting that rising concentrations of greenhouse gases may have even more serious impacts than previously thought. The report states bluntly that there is only a small chance of greenhouse gas emissions being kept below "dangerous" levels. (Read more about the UK report.)

Also, early in 2006 the U.S. government faced additional criticism over its stance on climate change. In January THE NEW YORK TIMES reported on NASA's top climate scientist James E. Hansen's contentions that his scientific work and opinions were being censored by government public affairs staff. An agency spokesman said government scientists are free to discuss their findings, but they are not allowed to make policy statements. This followed closely upon a long year of public scruitny of U.S. policy as the world turned its attention to climate change science and emissions treaties. Learn more about the uneasy relationship between science and politics in America today.

The Kyoto Protocol entered into force on February 16, 2005, without the participation of the world's biggest creator of greenhouse gases, the United States. Industrialized countries have committed to cut their combined emissions to 5% below 1990 levels by 2012. The emissions covered under the treaty are: Carbon dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6). As of April 19, 2005, 149 states and regional economic integration organizations have deposited instruments of ratifications, accessions, approvals or acceptances. (Learn more about the Kyoto Protocol.)

As a follow-up to the implementation of Kyoto, the United Nations hosted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Montreal in early December, 2005. The U.S. faced intense criticism for its' seeming lack of commitment to international efforts. According to THE ECONOMIST, "participants in the conference contend that by refusing to discuss new global warming obligations in Montreal this week, the U.S. is reneging on a pledge Bush made at a G-8 summit in Scotland earlier this year with leaders of the world's other major economies."

Canadian Prime Minister Martin, stated: "To the reticent nations, including the United States, I say this: There is such a thing as a global conscience" THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE joined a growing press chorus stating "the Montreal global warming conference shows U.S. is part of the problem but not part of the solution." Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky, the highest-ranking U.S. official at the Montreal talks, countered by restating that the Bush administration believes it can accomplish more to reduce greenhouse gases outside of international treaties.

The administration faces push-back on this policy from within the U.S. State governors from Maine to Delaware have signed on to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), an agreement to reduce global warming pollution in their states. The plan begins in 2009 and will reduce or offset the emissions of greenhouse gases from power plants by 10 percent by 2020.

So what's the bottom line for global warming in 2005? Here's what THE ECONOMIST had to say after the wrap up of the Montreal meeting:

In the seven years between Kyoto's signing and its implementation earlier this year, much has changed. The news from the scientists is mostly bad. The news from business and from politics, though, is more ambiguous. Business, which was once solidly against controlling carbon emissions, is now divided. In June, the chief executives of two dozen multinational firms, including American companies such as Ford and Hewlett-Packard, met Tony Blair to argue for the G8 rich-country group to adopt a global carbon-trading system.
More about the Montreal Conference

Watch NOW's report on the political of global warming.

The Media and Climate Change

In honor of the 35th anniversary of Earth Day many publications dedicated space to global warming. A familiar cityscape lies under water on the cover of THE NEW YORKER and the magazine features a Q and A on global warming. The Earth goes up in flames on MOTHER JONES. To some, this heightened coverage is too little too late — to others the articles are typical entries from the usual suspects. This latter argument is hard to sustain when business publications like THE ECONOMIST use their editorial pages to push for action to combat global warming. In reporting on the results of a study of the change of temperature in the world's oceans THE ECONOMIST wrote:

Some people do not believe global warming is happening; some believe it is happening, but that it is the result of natural variation; and some believe it is being caused by human activity. A paper presented to the AAAS by Tim Barnett, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, provides further evidence that the third camp is right.

Ross Gelbspan, writing in MOTHER JONES notes that U.S. media coverage of global warming as a serious problem still lags far behind that in the rest of the developed world. However, mainstream American media outlets like CNN, TIME MAGAZINE and THE WEATHER CHANNEL have joined with popular scientific publications like NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and SCIENCE in presenting major features on global warming.

The Crichton Effect

Those who discount the urgency of the problem are making headlines themselves. In a January 2005 speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, James Inhofe, (R-OK) made a speech on the again condemned the idea of global warming as "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." Inhofe made frequent reference to the fictional work by author Michael Crichton, best known for the rebirth of dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK, STATE OF FEAR in which eco-terrorists engineer disasters to prove their theories about global warming.

Economists, Business and Climate Change

One of the major reasons President Bush has given for removing the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol negotiations has been financial: "For America, complying with those [Kyoto] mandates would have a negative economic impact, with layoffs of workers and price increases for consumers." The well-publicized report by The Copenhagen Consensus, a study group on environment problems, raised some eyebrows by ranking climate change at the bottom of a list of pressing global problems. Some observers were not so surprised given that the leader of the project, Bjorn Lomborg, is an outspoken global warming skeptic. The argument the panel gave was that the costs of the changes needed outweighed the near-term benefits and that money might be better spent in other areas. (Read what Bjorn Lomborg and others had to say on NOW's "The Earth Debate."

THE ECONOMIST suggested in their pages that the U.S. and the world take a lesson from battle against the hole in the ozone layer which resulted in Montreal Protocol of 1987 restricting the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

That deal has proved surprisingly successful. The manufacture of CFCs is nearly phased out, and there are already signs that the ozone layer is on the way to recovery. ...This story holds several lessons for the admittedly far more complex climate problem. First, it is the rich world which has caused the problem and which must lead the way in solving it. Second, the poor world must agree to help, but is right to insist on being given time—as well as money and technology—to help it adjust. Third, industry holds the key: in the ozone-depletion story, it was only after DuPont and ICI broke ranks with the rest of the CFC manufacturers that a deal became possible. On the climate issue, BP and Shell have similarly broken ranks with Big Oil, but the American energy industry—especially the coal sector—remains hostile.
Some U.S. companies are tackling greenhouse gas emissions even without the impetus of the Kyoto Protocol. Cinergy, which was one of the companies sued by several states in 2004 over carbon dioxide emissions, has recently come out in favor of a "cap in trade" program, stating "We are planning the future of our company around our belief that we will eventually be required to operate in a carbon-constrained world." The Pew Center on Global Climate Change and The U.K.'s Carbon Trust both maintain lists of companies voluntarily reducing greenhouse gases.

SOURCES: NASA's Earth Observatory; Environmental Research Foundation; THE ATLANTIC; SOCIAL PROBLEMS; Global Change Research Information Office



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