Future generations may look back on President Bush's victory in the 2002 Congressional elections and see a casualty other than the Democrats. In the world beyond 2050 - our children's world - far-reaching shifts in the earth's climate could easily be a paramount concern. Yet the Republican Party's mid-term triumph could doom for another protracted period efforts to forge a responsible U.S. policy on global climate change - a further delay we cannot afford.
In the Senate, outgoing environment committee chair James M. Jeffords has authored a bill to control power plant emissions of carbon dioxide, the most important climate-changing gas, as well as three other air pollutants. Electricity generation accounts for roughly one-third of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. Transportation is responsible for another third, and efforts have been made in Congress to increase auto fuel economy. President Bush opposes both measures, and the Republican domination of the Congress resulting from the 2002 elections does not auger well for either, nor for other climate legislation with any bite in it.
We have known since the Carter Administration that global climate change was a serious threat requiring, among other things, new energy policies here and abroad. As early as 1979, the National Academy of Sciences warned that "a wait and see policy may mean waiting until it is too late." And a 1980 report from the President's Council on Environmental Quality urged that "the global warming problem should become a factor in making energy policy and not simply the subject of scientific investigation." It is easy to forget how long this issue has been around.
U.S. leadership is particularly important given that about 30 percent of the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide - the principal greenhouse gas - has come from U.S. sources. Yet every President since has badly neglected the issue, and recent administrations - Democratic and Republican - have actively sought to weaken international efforts to control the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Precious time has been lost, and devastating climate change becomes ever more likely.
How serious could these changes be over this century? The best current estimate is that, absent major corrective action (especially by the principal polluters), global warming in this century could wreak widespread havoc, including in the United States. For instance, it would make it impossible for about half of U.S. lands to sustain the types of plants and animals that now inhabit them. A huge portion of the United States' protected areas - large and small - is now threatened. In one projection, the much-loved maple, beech, and birch forests of New England will disappear in this century. Another projection shows that much of the Southeast will become a huge grassland savanna too hot and dry to support forests. Extreme weather events, rise in sea level, coral bleaching, and new public health risks are among the other predicted consequences.
There is a number that future generations will focus on like we follow quarterly economic reports: the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, measured in parts per million (ppm). The environmental consequences just noted are what could unfold if atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration rises from today's 370 ppm to about 700 ppm by 2100. (The pre-industrial level was about 280 ppm.).
The central goal of the international climate protection treaty signed ten years ago is to prevent this number from rising to a "dangerous" level. An important effort to define "dangerous" was recently undertaken by Brian O'Neill and Michael Oppenheimer at Brown and Princeton Universities respectively. Published in the journal Science, the article concluded that it would indeed be dangerous to risk catastrophic sea level rise associated with the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet or the disruption of major ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream.
To contain these risks, O'Neill and Oppenheimer conclude that nations should prevent carbon dioxide concentrations from exceeding about 450 ppm. In a business-as-usual scenario, we are scheduled to reach this level by about 2030. To achieve the ambitious goal of halting the buildup of carbon dioxide at 450 ppm or below, the authors further suggest that compliance with the Kyoto Protocol would be enormously helpful. The Kyoto Protocol, which President Bush rejects but which Europe, Japan, Russia and Canada now support, would require that U.S. carbon dioxide emissions be reduced to seven percent below its 1990 level by 2010.
Conventional wisdom holds that complying with Kyoto's goals would be prohibitively costly, and no doubt full U.S. compliance would come with a significant price tag at this late date. In an earlier era, the United States did one thing that is now needed. During the 1973-1986 period, as a result of oil price shocks and energy efficiency policies, overall energy efficiency in the United States improved by an annual rate of 2.5 percent. It is often thought that these were years of poor economic performance, but between 1970 and 1988, the U.S. economy expanded at a real rate of 3.3 percent per year. Comparable efficiency gains, together with switching to natural gas, afforestation, and emissions trading, would allow the United States to participate meaningfully in the Kyoto process.
There are rays of hope, including a public increasingly awake to the issue. Perhaps the brightest of these rays is that over half the states are pursuing initiatives that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. New Hampshire has legislation to cut power plant emissions of carbon dioxide, and, despite the Bush administration's opposition to the legislation, California has moved to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from auto exhausts, to mention two leading examples. If more states go in these directions, Congressional action will not be far behind.
The earth's climate should not and need not become an accidental casualty of the American electoral process.