Global warming has become perhaps the most complicated issue facing world leaders. On the one hand, warnings from the scientific community are becoming louder, as an increasing body of science points to rising dangers from the ongoing buildup of human-related greenhouse gases — produced mainly by the burning of fossil fuels and forests. On the other, the technological, economic and political issues that have to be resolved before a concerted worldwide effort to reduce emissions can begin have gotten no simpler, particularly in the face of a global economic slowdown.
Global talks on climate change opened in Cancún, Mexico, in late 2010 with the toughest issues unresolved, and the conference produced modest agreements. But while the measures adopted in Cancún are likely to have scant near-term impact on the warming of the planet, the international process for dealing with the issue got a significant vote of confidence.
The agreement fell well short of the broad changes scientists say are needed to avoid dangerous climate change in coming decades. But it laid the groundwork for stronger measures in the future, if nations are able to overcome the emotional arguments that have crippled climate change negotiations in recent years. The package, known as the Cancún Agreements, gives the more than 190 countries participating in the conference another year to decide whether to extend the frayed Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement that requires most wealthy nations to trim their emissions while providing assistance to developing countries to pursue a cleaner energy future.
At the heart of the international debate is a momentous tussle between rich and poor countries over who steps up first and who pays most for changed energy menus.
In the United States, on Jan. 2, 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency imposed its first regulations related to greenhouse gas emissions. The immediate effect on utilities, refiners and major manufacturers will be small, with the new rules applying only to those planning to build large new facilities or make major modifications to existing plants. Over the next decade, however, the agency plans to regulate virtually all sources of greenhouse gases, imposing efficiency and emissions requirements on nearly every industry and every region.
President Obama vowed as a candidate that he would put the United States on a path to addressing climate change by reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas pollutants. He offered Congress wide latitude to pass climate change legislation, but held in reserve the threat of E.P.A. regulation if it failed to act. The deeply polarized Senate’s refusal to enact climate change legislation essentially called his bluff.
But working through the E.P.A. has guaranteed a clash between the administration and Republicans that carries substantial risks for both sides. The administration is on notice that if it moves too far and too fast in trying to curtail the ubiquitous gases that are heating the planet it risks a Congressional backlash that could set back the effort for years. But the newly muscular Republicans in Congress could also stumble by moving too aggressively to handcuff the Environmental Protection Agency, provoking a popular outcry that they are endangering public health in the service of their well-heeled patrons in industry.
The United States entered the Cancún conference in 2010 in a weak position because of continuing disputes with China and other major developing nations over verification of emissions reductions, and its lack of action on domestic climate and energy legislation. Democratic leaders in the Senate in July 2010 gave up on reaching even a scaled-down climate bill, in the face of opposition from Republicans and some energy-state Democrats. The House had passed a broad cap-and-trade bill in 2009.
The Cancún conference ended in December 2010, with only modest achievements. The conference approved a package of agreements that sets up a new fund to help poor countries adapt to climate changes, creates new mechanisms for transfer of clean energy technology, provides compensation for the preservation of tropical forests and strengthens the emissions reductions pledges that came out of the last United Nations climate change meeting in Copenhagen in 2009.
The conference approved the agreement over the objections of Bolivia, which condemned the pact as too weak. But those protests did not block its acceptance. Delegates from island states and the least-developed countries warmly welcomed the pact because it would start the flow of billions of dollars to assist them to adopt cleaner energy systems and adapt to inevitable changes in the climate, like sea rise and drought.
But the conference left unresolved where the $100 billion in annual climate-related aid that the wealthy nations have promised to provide would come from.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, under whose auspices these annual talks are held, operates on the principle of consensus, meaning that any of the more than 190 participating nations can hold up an agreement.
Scientists learned long ago that the earth’s climate has powerfully shaped the history of the human species — biologically, culturally and geographically. But only in the last few decades has research revealed that humans can be a powerful influence on the climate as well.
A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that since 1950, the world’s climate has been warming, primarily as a result of emissions from unfettered burning of fossil fuels and the razing of tropical forests. Such activity adds to the atmosphere’s invisible blanket of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping “greenhouse” gases. Recent research has shown that methane, which flows from landfills, livestock and oil and gas facilities, is a close second to carbon dioxide in impact on the atmosphere.
That conclusion has emerged through a broad body of analysis in fields as disparate as glaciology, the study of glacial formations, and palynology, the study of the distribution of pollen grains in lake mud. It is based on a host of assessments by the world’s leading organizations of climate and earth scientists.
In the last several years, the scientific case that the rising human influence on climate could become disruptive has become particularly robust.
Some fluctuations in the Earth’s temperature are inevitable regardless of human activity — because of decades-long ocean cycles, for example. But centuries of rising temperatures and seas lie ahead if the release of emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation continues unabated, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The panel shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore for alerting the world to warming’s risks.
Despite the scientific consensus on these basic conclusions, enormously important details remain murky. That reality has been seized upon by some groups and scientists disputing the overall consensus and opposing changes in energy policies.
For example, estimates of the amount of warming that would result from a doubling of greenhouse gas concentrations (compared to the level just before the Industrial Revolution got under way in the early 19th century) range from 3.6 degrees to 8 degrees Fahrenheit. The intergovernmental climate panel said it could not rule out even higher temperatures. While the low end could probably be tolerated, the high end would almost certainly result in calamitous, long-lasting disruptions of ecosystems and economies, a host of studies have concluded. A wide range of economists and earth scientists say that level of risk justifies an aggressive response.
Other questions have persisted despite a century-long accumulation of studies pointing to human-driven warming. The rate and extent at which sea levels will rise in this century as ice sheets erode remains highly uncertain, even as the long-term forecast of centuries of retreating shorelines remains intact. Scientists are struggling more than ever to disentangle how the heat building in the seas and atmosphere will affect the strength and number of tropical cyclones. The latest science suggests there will be more hurricanes and typhoons that reach the most dangerous categories of intensity, but fewer storms over all.
Government figures for the global climate show that 2010 was the wettest year in the historical record, and it tied 2005 as the hottest year since record-keeping began in 1880.
Steps Toward a Response
The debate over climate questions pales next to the fight over what to do, or not do, in a world where fossil fuels still underpin both rich and emerging economies. With the completion of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at the Earth Summit in 1992, the world’s nations pledged to avoid dangerously disrupting the climate through the buildup of greenhouse gases, but they never defined how much warming was too much.
Nonetheless, recognizing that the original climate treaty was proving ineffective, all of the world’s industrialized countries except for the United States accepted binding restrictions on their greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, which was negotiated in Japan in 1997. That accord took effect in 2005 and its gas restrictions expire in 2012. The United States signed the treaty, but it was never submitted for ratification, in the face of overwhelming opposition in the Senate because the pact required no steps by China or other fast-growing developing countries.
It took until 2009 for the leaders of the world’s largest economic powers to agree on a dangerous climate threshold: an increase of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from the average global temperature recorded just before the Industrial Revolution kicked into gear. (This translates into an increase of 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit above the Earth’s current average temperature, about 59 degrees).
The Group of 8 industrial powers also agreed that year to a goal of reducing global emissions 50 percent by 2050, with the richest countries leading the way by cutting their emissions 80 percent. But they did not set a baseline from which to measure that reduction, and so far firm interim targets — which many climate scientists say would be more meaningful — have not been defined.
At the same time, fast-growing emerging economic powerhouses, led by China and India, still oppose taking on mandatory obligations to curb their emissions. They say they will do what they can to rein in growth in emissions — as long as their economies do not suffer. The world’s poorest countries, in the meantime, are seeking payments to help make them less vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, given that the buildup in climate-warming gases so far has come mainly from richer nations. Such aid has been promised since the 1992 treaty and a fund was set up under the Kyoto Protocol. But while tens of billions of dollars are said to be needed, only millions have flowed so far.
In many ways, the debate over global climate policy is a result of a global “climate divide.” Emissions of carbon dioxide per person range from less than 2 tons per year in India, where 400 million people lack access to electricity, to more than 20 in the United States. The richest countries are also best able to use wealth and technology to insulate themselves from climate hazards, while the poorest, which have done the least to cause the problem, are the most exposed.
In the meantime, a recent dip in emissions caused by the global economic slowdown is almost certain to be followed by a rise, scientists warn, and with population and appetites for energy projected to rise through mid-century, they say the entwined challenges of climate and energy will only intensify.