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July 22nd, 2008
Burning Season
Timeline: International Politics of Climate Change
1822 French scientist Joseph Fourier determines that the Earth’s atmosphere traps radiant heat, a phenomenon that would come to be known as the greenhouse effect.
1862 John Tyndall discovers that certain gases, including carbon dioxide, absorb radiant heat, and recognizes that this could affect the Earth’s climate.
1896 Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius develops the theory that modern industry’s burning of fossil fuels creates carbon dioxide that could warm the Earth.
1965 The first high-level report to predict that carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels would lead to global warming is prepared by Roger Revelle for President Lyndon Johnson’s science advisory committee.
April 22, 1970 As environmental awareness grows, an estimated 20 million people celebrate the first Earth Day.
1972 The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, the U.N.’s first major conference on environmental issues, is held in Stockholm, Sweden. This leads to the establishment of the U.N. Environment Programme later that year.
1980 Ronald Reagan appoints Frederick Seitz, a leading skeptic of global warming, to his scientific advisory committee.
1988 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is established by the U.N. Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization, becoming the main international source of information on climate change.
1988 NASA climatologist James Hansen testifies before the U.S. congress, saying that the Earth was warmer in the first five months of that year than any year since recording began, and that he is “99 percent certain” that the trend is the result of a build up of carbon dioxide and other artificial gases in the atmosphere.
1990 The IPCC issues its First Assessment Report, which states that “there is a natural greenhouse effect which already keeps the Earth warmer than it would otherwise be” and that carbon dioxide is responsible for over half of it.
1992 The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is adopted in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The treaty sets voluntary goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions but does not set legally-binding limits; critics say this is due to U.S. President George Bush’s focus on economic concerns. The U.S. Senate ratifies the treaty.
1993 President Bill Clinton launches the Climate Change Action Plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2000, in order to meet the UNFCCC treaty goal. The plan relies on the voluntary participation of businesses and industries.
1995 The IPCC issues its Second Assessment Report, which somewhat controversially blames human activity for global warming, saying that evidence suggests a “discernible human influence” on the global climate.
1997 In the lead up to new UNFCCC negotiations in Kyoto, Japan, the U.S. Senate adopts the Byrd-Hagel resolution stating that the country should not agree to any treaty that excuses developing nations, such as China and India, from greenhouse gas emissions limits.
1997 The Kyoto Protocol is adopted, setting binding limits on carbon emissions for signatory countries. The limits differ for developing and wealthy countries. Though U.S. Vice President Al Gore signs the treaty, it is never ratified or even put to a vote in the Senate, so it is not legally binding in the U.S. The treaty calls for a system of emissions trading, which means countries that manage to stay below their assigned emissions limit can sell their excess capacity to countries that exceed their limit. This creates a new market for carbon.
2001 The third IPCC report asserts that new, stronger evidence shows that most of the global warming over the last 50 years is “attributable to human activities.”
2003 Over 30,000 people die in a heat wave in Europe; August temperatures there are 20-30 percent higher than average. Many experts believe that global warming is to blame; an article in the journal Nature says that while heat waves can happen by chance, human activity has doubled the risk.
2004 Russia ratifies the Kyoto Protocol. Once ratified by at least 55 countries representing at least 55% of emissions from developed countries, the treaty is set to officially take effect. With the addition of Russia, both thresholds are met.
Feb. 16, 2005 The Kyoto Protocol goes into effect, with 141 signatories. The U.S. and Australia are not among them.
Aug. 2005 Hurricane Katrina devastates New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast. Many point to global warming. Though individual hurricanes are a matter of chance, Atlantic Ocean storms have increased in frequency.
Jan. 2006 California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signs a landmark bill imposing the most stringent greenhouse gas emissions limits in the U.S., with the goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.
Oct. 2006 The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, commissioned by the British government, estimates that climate change could cost between 5 and 20 percent of the global GDP each year, “now and forever,” and that an investment of 1 percent of the global GDP needs to be spent to avoid the worst impacts.
2007 The IPCC issues its Fourth Assessment Report, which calls global warming “unequivocal” and predicts heat waves, heavy precipitation, drought, tropical cyclones, and high sea levels in the 21st century.
Oct. 2007 Former Vice President Al Gore and the IPCC are jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on climate change.
Dec. 3, 2007 Newly-elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd ratifies the Kyoto Protocol. To date, the U.S. remains the only major industrialized country that has not ratified the treaty.
Dec. 15, 2007 At the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bali, 187 countries agree to begin a two-year process of negotiations on a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto is set to expire in 2012.
July 2008 At their annual summit, held in Hokkaido, Japan, leaders of the G8 countries, including the U.S., agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050. In a joint meeting with the G8, leaders of the largest emerging economies criticize the wealthier countries for not taking more responsibility, and refuse to agree to the same goal.

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