Friday, June 10, 2005

Some thoughts on Global Warming and the current Adminstration

Tony Blair was just in Washington and tried to cash in some of the political capital he earned by supporting President Bush on the Iraq war. One of the main topics of conversation was the global environment. The Brits, of course, along with the rest of the industrial world, favor the Kyoto Protocol for reducing the amount of emissions of greenhouse gases. The U.S., which is by far the world’s biggest producer of pollution and greenhouse gases (~25%, with ~5% of the world’s population), has, under Bush, refused to sign the treaty. Instead, the current administration favors voluntary reductions by industry, and has in fact relaxed various restrictions on various emitted pollutants (such as mercury) and weakened the Clean Air and Water Act. The argument, which was restated by Bush at a joint press conference with Blair, is that the science needs to be better before we can state that humans have contributed to global warming and climate change. This view held by the administration is contrary to the view held by the overwhelming number and percentage of scientists who study this topic, and contradicts previous administration admissions that human emissions do play a role in global climate changes. Perhaps Bush is holding out for an exact figure of the effect humans have had, and no scientist at the moment can give a firm number due to uncertainties in the data and computer models. While the magnitude of the effect humans have on the global environment is debatable, the vast majority of world experts don’t doubt we play a significant role in global warming and environment change.

What is interesting, though, is the latest news reported by the New York Times that a White House staffer (who happens to be a former oil lobbyist) has repeatedly edited scientific reports to downplay the effect of greenhouse gases on global warming. This goes along with a continued pattern of this administration ignoring, editing, or spinning not just scientific data and evidence that may go against a wanted policy initiative, but other types of evidence (or lack thereof) that may hinder an initiative, such as Iraq (where inspectors found no weapons of mass destruction at sites provided by intelligence agencies, which suggested major flaws in the intelligence being used to justify war). While spinning data and studies to suit the needs of an administration occurs at some level in all administrations, the lack of respect for hard facts and validated scientific results has seemed to flourish the past five years under Bush. Perhaps no other policy area demonstrates this more than environmental policy.

For example, a 2000 blue ribbon commission of government and independent scientists reported on the national assessment of what continued warming could mean for the U.S. This was published shortly before Bush took office, so they could not censor the report itself. Instead, the current administration has censored the findings and recommendations from the record for development of all subsequent significant associated public policy decisions and science program reports. Bush dismissed a 2002 report that the State Department submitted to the U.N reporting on the findings of an EPA report that concluded global warming is “due in large part to human activity,” as simply “a report put out by the bureaucracy.” (Whatever that is supposed to mean) He dismissed a 1999 study of record rises in global temperatures over the previous decade, as well as a National Research Council report in 2001 (that Bush actually commissioned himself) that had the same conclusions as the other scientific reports. In 2003, another EPA report saw a section deleted by the White House. Why? It was a section that stated there is conclusive evidence that global warming is affected by car and factory emissions. Shortly after that an internal memo was leaked to the New York Times where an EPA official was quoted as saying the White House policies for the environment, “no longer accurately represents the scientific consensus on climate change.” And shortly after all this happened, Christine Todd Whitman resigned as EPA administrator. And on it goes.

Worldwide we are seeing signs of global warming - unprecedented rates of increase in temperature, record droughts in some parts of the world, unprecedented rates of glacial melting, the beginnings of migrations of disease to new areas, changing ocean currents (which drive global weather patterns), changes in coral reefs, and so on. No one knows the extent of devastation that may occur on a global scale because the global weather system is so complex we have not yet figured it out completely enough for computer models. But the best science we have right now all suggest that some part of the climate changes we are seeing, along with the consequences, is do to us, and putting the policies that may help reduce global changes in place need to happen sooner than later because changes are occurring at a rapid pace. Yes, no one doubts part of the changes are part of natural climatic cycles. Yes, it will cost large sums of money to make necessary changes to help reduce certain types of greenhouse emissions. Yes, there are gaps in and legitimate questions that can be asked of the data. But if we can start preemptive wars where many tens of thousands of people die based on questionable evidence, can we not help preserve our world for our kids and future generations, where literally billions of people will be affected in some way? Most of the rest of the world is willing to make an effort, but their efforts will almost certainly be in vain if the U.S. does not participate. It is easy to keep the environment off of your radar screen in times of war and social security issues, but it is vital to the future of human civilization, period.


mark said...

Bush may be totally uninterested in reducing CO2 emissions but hat doesn't mean that adhering Kyoto would do so.

In fact, the generous exemptions the treaty contains for India and China, which have almost a third of the Earth's population(!) render any good that might come of U.S. action moot while probably underestimating the costs.

The economics of comparative advantage would simply shift C02 producing industries from high cost regulating USA - where there are at least standards enforcement- to low cost, non-regulating India and China. The incentives would result in more, not less CO2 emitted to the atmosphere because businesses that might otherwise have stayed under EPA control would move abroad.

Kyoto may have been one of the most ineptly negotiated treaties on record which is why President Clinton could not submit it to the US Senate for ratification. It was so punitive toward the U.S. economy without helping the global CO2 problem that it might have failed to garner even so much as 10 Democratic votes.

The Europeans, who wanted to see a carbon-tax " brake" on American GDP growth rates for their own reasons, were enraged when Bush " unsigned" Kyoto though the effect was entirely symbolic. Their negotiation stance was to insert requirements primarily to raise costs for US industry, not to seek the measures with the greatest potential to lower global CO2 levels over a longitudinal perspective. Bush's " unsigning" basically was an " F you - we see your con game" gesture to the EU apparatus.

Kyoto was a cynical political farce from the very start hi-jacking a good cause.

vonny said...

Hey mark,

Don't get me wrong, I am not pushing specifically for Kyoto for the reasons you bring up. India and China will ultimately come up to our current levels, and the treaty does not address this. However, my concern is twofold. First, how we are not taking any lead whatsoever. If the administration is against the Kyoto Protocol, then, as Bush constantly tells Congress and Democrats, give the world an alternative plan. The second is how the science is simply altered or ignored, and then for the White House to counter with the argument 'we need to do another study.' Obviously this is the safe political response for the Bush oil constituency, but at what cost long-term? The worst-case scenarios are truly terrifying on a global scale, to the point where the Pentagon has been thinking in terms of how to respond when wars begin breaking out over farmland, water supplies, disease outbreaks, and so on. This may be an interesting topic to explore and put in the blogosphere in terms of a national security perspective.