Get Serious About Climate Change

April 1997

Charles O. Moore
Associate Director, Sustainable World Program
W. Alton Jones Foundation
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Like an out-of-shape couch potato promising to exercise eventually, the Clinton administration needs to stop talking about someday, somehow getting serious on global warming.

Critical and economically feasible initiatives can begin immediately. The administration needs to lace on its sneakers, begin the process of stabilizing the atmosphere, and then just do it.

Last July, the executive branch acknowledged what has been widely known for years -- that voluntary measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, agreed to in 1992, have failed.

Unfortunately, the tendency since last summer -- and continuing through the recent negotiations in Bonn -- has been to appease special interests and seek delays in starting meaningful efforts.

Backed by the consensus of some 2,500 climate scientists, the administration is justifiably concerned about human-generated carbon dioxide emissions -- principally from burning fossil fuels -- which trap heat in the earth's atmosphere and affect global climate.

Among the threats we face are more severe weather patterns, agricultural loss, spread of disease, and a sea-level rise that could threaten islands and seacoasts all over the world.

After agreeing that a steady growth in emissions is serious and preventable, however, the administration has taken little action. One reason for the administration's foot-dragging stems from a massive public relations campaign waged by certain energy-intensive and fossil-fuel-extraction industries.

These interests are trying to convince the public that addressing global warming would cost the U.S. economy a million jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars.

Not only does this ignore the potentially staggering impact of climate change itself, but such predictions, historically, have been wildly inaccurate.

During debates over acid-rain controls, for example, some in the electric-utility industry claimed that reductions of sulfur dioxide would cost up to $10,000 per ton of pollutant. Today, these reductions cost less than $100 per ton.

By pushing the starting date for any serious regulatory program years into the future, the administration condemns the program to failure since reductions through innovation or trading permits will never be cheaper than doing nothing, and doing nothing seems to be the agenda.

Instead, the United States should signal its intention to seek agreement in the upcoming Kyoto climate-change negotiations around several goals.

Developed countries' emissions should be stabilized at 1990 levels by the year 2005, with significant reductions from 1990 levels following in 2010. Agreeing to such a reasonable, near-term date will send an immediate price signal to the market.

Developed countries must demonstrate a willingness to address their own emissions in the near term before negotiating a mid- to long-term plan that provides for international flexibility.

Finally, developing countries should be assisted in voluntarily addressing their own emissions through a number of technology-dissemination incentives and multilateral financial assistance.

The world needs U.S. leadership on this issue. President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore can educate the public about a vision for the 21st century that incorporates a safer climate, more jobs and a more efficient economy.

It's time to put on those sneakers.

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