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Global warming: How much is too much for the White House?

ASK THIS | November 28, 2007

President Bush says he's committed to fighting global warming. So why won't the White House say how much the United States and other countries should reduce global warming pollution?

By Alden Meyer

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) most recent report lays out stark choices for policy-makers when it comes to global warming. According to the best science, human activity is driving global warming, its effects are already evident, and as Earth continues to warm, the consequences will become increasingly severe. The report also says that cost-effective technologies are available to limit temperature increases. But accelerated deployment of these technologies requires appropriate government policies -- in particular policies that put a price on global warming pollution by setting firm caps on emissions.

President Bush insists that his administration wants to be part of the solution. But his key advisors have refused to identify what they consider a dangerous level of global warming or how much the United States and other countries should reduce their emissions – even after hosting a recent meeting of the world’s largest emitters to address precisely those two questions.

Representatives from more than 180 nations will meet next month in Bali, Indonesia, to begin hammering out a new international agreement to cut global warming pollution. With the climate summit fast approaching, now is the time for the White House to tell the world whether or not it will do more than pay lip service to this critical problem.

Substantial scientific evidence indicates that an increase in the global average temperature of more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels would bring about large-scale, irreversible changes to the world’s climate. Sustained warming of such magnitude could result in the extinction of many species and extensive melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, causing global sea level to rise 12 to 40 feet. It also would exacerbate problems brought about by global warming that are already evident, such as increases in wildfires, hurricane intensity, and severe drought.

The European Union has already set a goal of allowing warming to increase global temperatures no more than 2 degrees C. According to a study by my group, the Union of Concerned Scientists, even if China, India and other major developing countries take very aggressive action to fight global warming, the United States and other industrialized countries would have to cut their emissions 70 to 80 percent below 2000 levels by 2050 to have a 50 percent chance of keeping the world from warming more than 2 degrees C.

In February 2002, during his announcement of a new U.S. approach to climate change, President Bush stated, “I reaffirm America’s commitment to the United Nations framework convention and its central goal, to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate.” James Connaughton, the president’s senior environmental advisor, repeated that pledge in testimony before Congress on March 19 of this year.

But when Connaughton was asked how the White House defined “dangerous climate change” during a November 16 press conference call on the IPCC’s most recent report, he replied, “We don’t have a view on that.” Sharon Hays, associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, added, “[T]he science simply can’t tell us what that number is. There are always going to be value judgments associated with it.”

Hays’ boss, John Marburger, was working from the same script weeks earlier. In a letter to the editor in the Washington Post, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy director wrote that determining what constitutes “dangerous climate change involve[s] value judgments that go far beyond what science alone can determine.”

To date, neither Connaughton, Hays nor Marburger have addressed the key questions:

Q. What factors other than science might come into play when figuring out how much warming is too dangerous?

Q. If not 2 degrees, what goal should the world set for limiting the increase in global temperatures?

Q.  Just how much risk is President Bush willing to take with Earth’s climate?

The truth is that global warming involves more than science. The entire history of human civilization has taken place under one global climate over thousands of years. Now, human-caused global warming threatens to drastically change our climate, and consequently our economies and our environment, in just a few decades.

Fortunately, scientists have seen this problem coming and have solutions. There are proven energy-efficiency measures and technologies for every sector of our economy; there is wind and solar power; there are vehicles that can go farther on a gallon of gas; there are cleaner alternative fuels; there are ways to protect carbon-trapping tropical forests. But only if policy-makers are willing to set enforceable goals for emissions reductions can we deploy these technologies in time to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.

Bills before Congress would establish a cap-and-trade system that would make allowances for pollution tradable on an open market. Such systems put a price on pollution and end the practice of allowing polluters to use the atmosphere as a free dumping ground. White House officials should also be asked:

Q. If a cap-and-trade bill passes the House and Senate, would President Bush veto it?

Q. Does the president believe the price paid by major U.S. companies for pumping global warming pollution into the atmosphere should continue to be zero?

The president and his advisors say the answer to global warming is more investment in research and development for new, cleaner technologies. But without policies to move these technologies into the market, all the research and development in the world won’t be enough to avert a dangerous level of global warming.

Scientists have been studying global warming for decades. Now policy-makers must act to empower our scientists, our engineers, our businesses and our societies to effectively fight global warming.

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