Keeping Our Cool Concerning Global Warming

We are entering the unknown with our climate.

      Thomas Karl of the National Climatic Data Center and Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research

Recent scientific reports about the current state of the world's climate are disturbing. Numerous researchers in several of the world's most respected scientific journals emphasize that mounting statistical evidence points to a discernible human influence on our global climate.

"There is no doubt that the composition of the atmosphere is changing because of human activities, and today greenhouse gases are the largest human influence on global climate," Karl and Trenberth wrote in their report published in December 5, 2003, in the journal Science.

Karl and Trentberth estimate that between 1990 and 2100, global temperatures will rise by 3.1 degrees Fahrenheit to 8.9 degrees Fahrenheit. The effects of this warming would include a melting of the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica and the inundation of the world's coast, they said.

"The likely result is more frequent heat waves, droughts, extreme precipitation events and related impacts, e.g. wild fires, heat stress, vegetation changes and sea-level rise, which will be regionally dependent," they said. 

The basic theory of global warming is that as growing levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) -- such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride -- collect in the atmosphere, they trap heat radiating from our planet toward outer space. These gases act like the glass in a greenhouse by allowing sunlight to enter into the Earth's atmosphere, but preventing the resulting heat from escaping back into space.

The Kyoto Protocol, a United Nations treaty negotiated in 1997, would mandate a 5.2 percent reduction in global emissions of GHGs from 1990 levels by 2012 if it goes into effect. As of November 30, 2003, countries representing 44.2 percent of the developed countries in 1990 have ratified the agreement. That means that Russia (with 17.4 percent of the emissions in 1990) or the United States (with 36.1 percent of the global emissions in 1990) must ratify the climate pact for it to go into effect.

Under the Kyoto agreement, the United States would be committed to reduce its GHGs by 7 percent from 1990 emissions before 2012. In March 2001, however, the Bush administration announced it would not implement the treaty, in part, because of what it viewed as the potential harm to the U.S. economy.

Many critics of the Bush administration argue that reducing GHGs would not necessarily have a negative impact on our nation's economy. For example, John T. Hardy, PhD, chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences at Western Washington University and author of the book Climate Change - Causes, Effects and Solutions (John Wiley 2003) states, "Estimates of the costs of mitigating climate change range from moderately substantial to negative (i.e. a cost benefit). Predictions that actions similar to those proposed by the Kyoto Protocol will result in economic disaster seem unscientific. In fact, many of the world's most notable economists believe that actions to reduce GHG emissions will have a long-term net economic benefit."

Instead of ratifying the Kyoto treaty, the Bush administration has focused on establishing voluntary programs to reduce emissions and on adopting guidelines for the voluntary reporting of those reductions. On Dec. 5, 2003, the U.S. Energy Department published a proposed rule that would establish new guidelines revising its voluntary GHG reporting program (68 Federal Register 68,203). Public comments were due by February 5, 2004.

The reformed reporting program will establish revised procedures and reporting requirements for filing voluntary reports and encourage private and public entities to submit annual reports of their total greenhouse gas emissions, net emission reductions and carbon sequestration activities that are complete, reliable and consistent. Comments and other related materials may be viewed here.

Advocates of the Kyoto treaty had hoped that Russia would decide to ratify the agreement during 2003, but Russian Premier Vladimir Putin stated in September 2003 that his government wanted to continue studying the initiative. It is generally believed that the soonest the Kyoto agreement could be voted on by the Russian Duma would be in the middle of 2004, after the Russian elections for the Duma and for president.

We must look beyond the hype and controversy that surrounds the issue of global warming and focus on finding real world solutions. In order to deal with this complex problem, we must have greater research efforts to identify the global impact of climate change. In addition, we need to demonstrate to the management of industrial facilities that improving operational efficiency through GHG reductions can actually help their bottom lines, not hurt them.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2004 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Angela Neville, JD, REM, is the former editorial director of Environmental Protection.

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