Climate Change Conundrum

The environment versus the economy. Judging from his actions, President George W. Bush appears to view the reduction of industrial pollution as a threat to the U.S. economic prosperity. This attitude is reflected in his recent decisions not to regulate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions at power plants or to adhere to the Kyoto international global warming treaty. In March, when Bush met with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, a proponent of the Kyoto agreement, at the White House, he stated "Our economy has slowed down. We also have an energy crisis, and the idea of placing caps on CO2 does not make economic sense."

Bush's refusal to regulate CO2 emissions was a reversal of his position during the 2000 Presidential campaign. In the wake of the president's rejection of the Kyoto agreement, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman stated "we can develop technologies, market-based incentives and other innovative approaches to global climate change." Whitman expects Bush to announce an alternate strategy for dealing green house gas emissions in June.

Many were surprised by the Bush administration's position on these issues in light of the official announcement on January 22 by the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that "most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations." The panel believes that average temperatures across the world could climb between 1.4 degrees and 5.8 degrees Centigrade over the coming century. According to John Houghton, co-chair of the IPCC panel, the last time Earth experienced such a large change in temperature was when the Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago. Copies of the report are available at www.ipcc.ch.

According to Gallup polls conducted in March, the Bush administration's emphasis on economic recovery and energy production over environmental concerns seems to be at odds with Americans' consistent preference for making environmental protection a priority. In contrast to Bush's position, 81 percent of Americans favor setting higher emissions and pollution standards for industry and only 41percent support his position on the Kyoto treaty. More generally, Americans state that where economic growth conflicts with environmental interests, the interests of the environment should prevail, by a 57 percent to 33 percent margin. In addition, by a nearly two-to-one margin (61 percent versus 33 percent), Gallup finds that Americans believe humans are responsible for global warming. Interestingly, however, the same survey revealed that only 31 percent of those polled think global warming will pose a serious threat to themselves or their way of life. For complete listings of Gallup's U.S. study, visit www.gallup.com/poll/releases/pr010117.asp and www.gallup.com/poll/releases/pr010409.asp.

Despite Washington's reluctance to take immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, state and local governments are moving forward with innovative initiatives and finding that the fight against global warming doesn't have to put a stranglehold on the economy. In our cover story, "Teaming Up Against Climate Change" (p. 16), New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen describes in the first of a two part series how U.S. cities and states are implementing programs to cut greenhouse gases. She further points out how many corporations, such as Dupont, British Petroleum and Intel, are voluntarily reducing greenhouse gas emissions and saving money in energy and fuel costs.

In his new book, You Can't Eat GNP: Economics as if Ecology Mattered (Perseus Publishing, 2001), Eric A. Davidson also promotes the idea that cutting pollution can cut corporate costs and improve companies' bottom lines. A senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center (www.whrc.org), Davidson focuses on how all too often economic and environmental concerns are pitted against each other in the political arena, such as choices between spotted owls or jobs in mill towns and prevention of global warming or higher gross national product (GNP). To counter this mindset of portraying economic growth and environmental sustainability as doomed adversaries, he describes how natural resources can be valued as part of a sustainable economic system, without threatening our current economic prosperity.

The irony is that if the issue of global warming is ignored now because of concerns about hurting the currently sluggish U.S. economy, the long term effects may cost the world billions of dollars a year down the road, according to the U.N. Environment Programme report (www.unep.org) released in February. The report projects that losses due to more frequent tropical cyclones, loss of land as a result of rising sea levels and damage to fishing stocks, agriculture and water supplies could annually cost around $304.2 billion. According to the same report, in the United States the extra costs of health-related measures and more intensive water management may reach nearly $30 billion a year by 2050.

Such projections illustrate the fallacy of the argument that the environment must take a back seat to revving up the U.S. economy and meeting our nation's energy needs. A healthy environment is essential for maintaining a long-term healthy economy.




This article originally appeared in the June 2001 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 12, No. 6, p. 6.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2001 issue of Environmental Protection.

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