THE DEBATE’S OVER:GLOBE IS WARMING !
THE DEBATE’S OVER:GLOBE IS WARMING !
2005-06-13 at 11:07:00 am #29141
The Debate’s Over: Globe Is Warming
Don’t look now, but the ground has shifted on global
warming. After decades of debate over whether the planet is heating and, if so,
whose fault it is, divergent groups are joining hands with little fanfare to
deal with a problem they say people can no longer avoid.
General Electric is the latest big corporate convert;
politicians at the state and national level are looking for solutions; and
religious groups are taking philosophical and financial stands to slow the
progression of climate change.
They agree that the problem is real. A recent study led by
James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies confirms that,
because of carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases, Earth is
trapping more energy from the sun than it is releasing back into space.
The U.N. International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
estimates that global temperatures will rise 2 to 10 degrees by 2100. A “middle
of the road” projection is for an average 5-degree increase by the end of the
century, says Caspar Amman of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in
What the various factions don’t necessarily agree on is
what to do about it. The heart of the discussion is “really about how to deal
with climate change, not whether it’s happening,” says energy technology expert
James Dooley of the Battelle Joint Global Change Research Institute in College
Park, Md. “What are my company’s options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions?
Are there new business opportunities associated with addressing climate change?
Those are the questions many businesses are asking today.”
GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt recently announced that his
company, which reports $135 billion in annual revenue, will spend $1.5 billion a
year to research conservation, pollution and the emission of greenhouse gases.
Joining him for the announcement were executives from such mainline corporations
as American Electric Power, Boeing and Cinergy.
Religious groups, such as the United States Catholic
Conference of Bishops, National Association of Evangelicals and National Council
of Churches, have joined with scientists to call for action on climate change
under the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. “Global warming is
a universal moral challenge,” the partnership’s statement says.
And high-profile politicians from both parties are getting
into the act. For example, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for
a reduction of more than 80% over the next five decades in his state’s emission
of greenhouse gases that heat in the atmosphere.
To be sure, many companies — most notably oil industry
leader ExxonMobil — still express skepticism about the effects of global
warming. And the Bush administration has supported research and voluntary
initiatives but has pulled back from a multi-nation pact on environmental
The administration was on the defensive last week when The
New York Times reported that a staff lawyer has been softening scientific
assessments of global warming. White House spokesman Scott McClellan defended
such action as a routine part of a multi-agency review process.
Nonetheless, the tides of change appear to be moving
“As big companies fall off the ‘I don’t believe in climate
change’ bandwagon, people will start to take this more seriously,” says
environmental scientist Don Kennedy, editor in chief of the journal Science.
Companies aren’t changing because of a sudden love for the environment, Kennedy
says, but because they see change as an opportunity to protect their
“On the business side, it just looks like climate change is
not going away,” says Kevin Leahy of Cinergy, a Cincinnati-based utility that
reports $4.7 billion in annual revenue and provides electricity, mostly
generated from coal, to 1.5 million customers. Most firms see global warming as
a problem whose risks have to be managed, he says.
Power companies want to know what sort of carbon
constraints they face — carbon dioxide is the chief greenhouse gas — so they can
plan long term and avoid being hit with dramatic emission limits or penalties in
the future, he says.
Science and solutions
Climate scientists say this acceptance comes none too soon.
“All the time we should have been moving forward … has been wasted by arguing
if the problem even exists,” says Michael Mann of the University of
The IPCC estimates that rainfall will increase up to 20% in
wet regions, causing floods, while decreasing 20% in arid areas, causing
droughts. The Environmental Protection Agency says melting glaciers and warmer
ocean waters will likely cause an average 2-foot rise in sea level on all U.S.
coasts by 2100.
Carbon dioxide is the byproduct of burning fossil fuels
such as coal, natural gas or oil. There are now about 1 trillion tons of carbon
from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. By the end of the century, atmos-pheric
carbon projections range from 1.2 trillion tons if stringent corrective steps
are taken to 2.8 trillion tons if little is done.
Moving ahead with solutions looks like the hardest part of
the equation for the United States. The Bush administration’s stance has
frustrated advocates of a more aggressive response.
Bush explained in a 2001 speech why he opposed joining the
Kyoto Protocol, a global agreement to curb greenhouse gases: “The (Kyoto)
targets themselves were arbitrary and not based upon science. For America,
complying with those mandates would have a negative economic impact, with
layoffs of workers and price increases.”
Instead, the administration “harnesses the power of markets
and technological innovation, maintains economic growth, and encourages global
participation,” former Energy Department head Spencer Abraham wrote last year in
Science. He pointed to tax incentive programs, climate research and technologies
such as “FutureGen,” the Energy Department’s 10-year,$1 billion attempt at
creating a coal-fired power plant that emits no greenhouse gases.
Other administration efforts:
· The $1.7 billion hydrogen fuel-cell car initiative
announced two years ago in Bush’s State of the Union address.
· A $49 million carbon “sequestration” initiative
with 65 projects to see whether carbon dioxide can be stripped from
· Participation in the international ITER program to
develop nuclear fusion as an energy source.
The administration has encouraged voluntary efforts.
Fourteen trade groups representing industrial, energy, transportation and forest
companies have signed up for a program aimed at cutting greenhouse-gas emissions
18% by 2012.
So why isn’t this enough to assuage critics?
Rick Piltz, a science policy expert who resigned in protest
from the administration’s Climate Change Science Program in March, says the
reliance on voluntary measures and long-term technology breakthroughs is a
roadblock against simple conservation steps that could curb emissions now. Piltz
provided the edited documents that were the subject of last week’s story in The
New York Times.
Commonly cited examples of the conservation steps Piltz
· Incentives for emission controls on the oldest and
least efficient power plants.
· More stringent mileage and tailpipe requirements
· Expanded tax credits for more efficient air
conditioners, hybrid cars and appliances.
Political leaders will support such measures only if the
benefits come at a low cost to the economy, says William Reilly, co-chair of the
bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy and former head of the EPA under
President George H.W. Bush. “But there is a lot going on, and I think we will be
seeing some movement on this.”
Away from the political arena, other irons are in the
· More people are advocating nuclear power.
Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore told a congressional panel in April that
“nuclear energy is the only non-greenhouse gas-emitting energy source that can
effectively replace fossil fuels and satisfy global demand.”
· Immelt called for the United States to adopt an
emissions-trading plan for greenhouse gases. Taking a cue from the EPA’s policy
of having companies buy and sell permits to release sulfur dioxide, which is
responsible for acid rain, economists suggest that such a scheme would limit
carbon dioxide by making emissions economically less feasible. In Congress, the
Climate Stewardship Act proposed by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and John
McCain, R-Ariz., would commit the country to such a plan.
No ‘silver bullet’ solution
Pressure for reforms may come most strongly from “socially
responsible” investors. “We make bottom-line arguments to companies to make
decisions in the interests of their shareholders,” says John Wilson of Christian
Brothers Investment Services, which manages $3.5 billion in investor funds. The
firm advises 1,000 Catholic institutions, such as churches, schools and
A Christian Brothers resolution in May asked ExxonMobil “to
explain the scientific basis for its ongoing denial of the broad scientific
consensus that the burning of fossil fuels contributes to global climate
change.” The resolution garnered 10.3% of shareholders’ votes, representing 665
million shares worth more than $36 billion, despite the opposition of
“The future of energy is plainly moving away from fossil
fuels and we want the companies (that) we invest in to explain how they plan to
adjust,” Wilson says.
Dooley, of the Battelle Institute, says: “We need a whole
series of ‘home runs’ and maybe even a couple of ‘grand slams’ to successfully
address this problem. More efficient refrigerators, better and cheaper solar
cells, hybrid automobiles, fuel cells, power plants that capture and store their
(carbon dioxide) deep below the surface and nuclear power. They all have
important roles to play.”
“No one seriously talks about trying to address climate
change with one technology,” Dooley says. “Everyone understands that there isn’t
a ‘silver bullet’ out there waiting to be discovered.”