US debate hots up over environmental issues

05 February 2007 00:00  [Source: ICB Americas]

Politicians square off over green issues and environmental impact, igniting national dispute

JOE KAMALICK/WASHINGTON, D.C.

ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS are about to get hot, really hot - maybe even hot enough to warm the globe.

Two historic events are converging to ignite anew the national debate on atmospheric angst. And although the two events were separated by an ocean, they came together with nuclear force as the 110th US Congress convened in January.

The first was the Nov. 7 national elections in which Democrats won majority control of the US Congress for the first time in a dozen years. The second was final approval in December of the European Union's far-reaching program for the registration, evaluation and authorization of chemicals (Reach).

Enactment of Reach has given the global environmental movement significant new momentum because, whether intended or not, the huge new EU program will migrate to other nations. And with environmentally aggressive Democrats now in control in Congress, the first Reach transplant might soon take root in US law.

The debate will be heated. Long in the wilderness of minority status, Democrats return to power on Capitol Hill with an equally long list of pent-up legislative fervor, especially on matters environmental.

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The parameters of the US national debate over global warming are infuriatingly familiar to both sides.

The threat

The global warming crowd contends that earth's average atmospheric temperature is rising and mankind's consumption of fossil fuels is the principal culprit. Unless urgent and aggressive action is taken immediately - chiefly by reducing worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases - global warming will melt polar ice caps, flood thousands of coastal cities big and small, destroy crops and arable land, cause species extinctions, spread famine and accelerate disease.

In other words, a basic apocalyptic nightmare. Proponents of global warming cite modern records indicating that the planet's average annual temperature has increased by 0.75°C in the last century. They cite computer climate modeling to warn that the continuing buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere and the cumulative effect of those emissions will bump global surface temperatures by 1.4°C or perhaps by a whopping 6°C by 2100.

Opponents contend that there is simply no solid evidence that human activity is driving global warming - if indeed the planet's temperature is rising to any significant degree - and that periodic shifts in Earth's temperature are common in the planet's 4.5bn-year geologic history, long before the advent of man. They cite the Medieval Warm Period of 800-1300 AD when temperatures were 1°C warmer than today, followed by the Little Ice Age of 1400-1850 when it was 1°C cooler than now.

They dismiss computer modeling that projects extreme temperature increases over this century, arguing that data can be manipulated to produce any desired outcome.

So if the actions of man are not the cause of global warming, the opponents argue, then government-mandated reductions in fossil fuels consumption will do nothing to alter the atmospheric outcome. Rather, it will cause the loss of millions of jobs and billions, perhaps trillions of dollars in GDP.

In other words, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The two sides of the global warming controversy could not be more acutely personified than in the persons of the departing and incoming chairs of the crucial Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The departing chairman is Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.). The new chairwoman in the Democrat-controlled 110th Congress is Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). The two hold completely opposite views on global warming.

Shortly after the Nov. 7 election victory and when she was named chairwoman of the Senate Environment Committee, Boxer wrote to President George W. Bush asking for his help in meeting "the most pressing environmental issue currently facing mankind: human-induced global warming."

Boxer asked Bush to work with her and with the new chairmen of two other key Senate committees with environmental jurisdiction - Senator Jeff Bingaman (D.-N.M.) at the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and Senator Joseph Lieberman (Ind.-Conn.) at the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee - "to pass meaningful climate change legislation in 2007."

"The US," said Boxer, "must move quickly to adopt economy-wide constraints on domestic GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions and then work with the international community to forge an effective and equitable global agreement" for worldwide reductions of greenhouse gases.

"Scientists are now warning," Boxer added, "that we may be reaching a 'tipping point,' beyond which it will be extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible, to avoid the worst consequences of climate change."

Boxer comes out swinging

Boxer said she and her committee chairmen colleagues agree, "along with the overwhelming majority of the scientific community, that human-caused global warming is real and that we must pass legislation to address this threat."

Reminding Bush that his Republican Party had just taken a thumping in the national elections, Boxer said: "The recent elections have signaled a need to change direction in many areas, including global warming."

The implication is that if Bush does not warm to the climate change issue, Republicans could lose the White House as well in the 2008 elections.

"We pledge to work to pass an effective system of mandatory limits on greenhouse gases. We are committed to achieving this result," she said.

Then there's Senator Inhofe. As his days as chairman of the Senate Environment Committee dwindled, Inhofe launched a series of hearings to challenge the global warming theory and its proponents.

He noted that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - a major force supporting the global warming theory - has itself lowered its estimate of mankind's likely impact on the Earth's climate by 25% and scaled back sea level increases by nearly half since the last IPCC report in 2001.

"We are all skeptics now," Inhofe said. "It appears that the UN is now acknowledging what an increasing number of scientists who study the climate have come to realize: Predictions of manmade catastrophic global warming are simply unsustainable."

"It is remarkable that sea level rise estimates have been cut nearly in half since the last IPCC assessment in 2001 because of scientific 'refinement due to better data,'" he said.

"Climate science is always going through these 'refinements,'" Inhofe added. "The erroneous prediction of a coming ice age in the 1970s also faded away due to 'a refinement due to better data.'"

Since 1895, Inhofe noted, "the news media have alternated between four separate global cooling and global warming scares. Each climate scare eventually faded away due to 'refinements due to better data.'"

"Even the UN appears now to be sobering up and dousing much-needed cold water on global warming alarmism," he said at one of the hearings.

"After several decades of climate hype, the UN appears to finally be conceding that previous estimates of climatic doom have been over-hyped and the science was simply not there to project these frightening extreme scenarios," he added.

"Eventually," he said, "even the peddlers of climate alarmism will have to concede that the hoopla over manmade catastrophic global warming and proposed solutions, such as the costly and ineffective Kyoto Protocol, will prove to be one of history's most misguided concerns - joining the 1970s' ice age fears, overpopulation and famine scares to name just a few."

Predictions

"Clearly, we cannot today somehow disprove catastrophic predictions of our climate in the year 2100," Inhofe said. "But if the observations of what is happening today are not consistent with what global warming models predict should occur, then what we do know is that our understanding of the globe is incomplete."

"The fact is, the biosphere is extremely complex and startling discoveries happen every year," he added. "This point was driven home earlier this year when the journal Nature reported that trees emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Trees are everywhere, yet we didn't even know this most basic fact about our planet."

"As the Democrats rush to pass costly carbon cap legislation in the next Congress," Inhofe said, "testimony at this hearing shows that the so-called 'scientific consensus' does not exist."

"Scare tactics," he added, "should not drive public policy."

There is one other major difference between Senator Inhofe and Senator Boxer: Boxer holds the gavel and will in large measure set the agenda for environmental legislation in the new Congress.

And, as is so often the case in political matters on Capitol Hill, science and fact are often trumped by perception. Whatever the facts may be in the global warming controversy, popular perception of the threat - or the lack of it - may do more to determine the legislative outcome.

The next two years will be particularly crucial because every member of the House and most senators are already in full campaign mode for the 2008 elections. A politician's stand on environmental matters may make or break his or her campaign.

The colleague that Boxer named to head the Environment Committee's subcommittee on environmental health is Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton, a leading contender for the White House in 2008.

DAVOS

Blair predicts US breakthrough

Climate change and global warming were high on the agenda at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In the final speech at the event, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair claimed that international talks on climate change are "on the verge of a breakthrough." The US, he noted, is in the process of a quantum shift on the topic.

Blair's words were given added weight by comments at Davos by Senator John McCain when he commented that he expects Congress to take action on climate change very soon, and the Bush administration to follow suit. "I admit that it is very late, and it may not be enough, McCain said, "but I think that for the first time you are going to see some action on this compelling issue."

Blair also pointed to president Bush's recent State of the Union address, noting that this "built on his 'addiction to oil' speech last year and set the first US targets for a reduction in petrol consumption." Blair also said, "The German G8 presidency gives us an opportunity to agree at least the principles of a new binding international agreement to come into effect when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012 one that is more radical and more comprehensive [and] includes all the major countries of the world. It is a prize of tantalizing significance and I think it is possible." He praised Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel's "excellent" G8 leadership.

The US, China and India are not signed up to Kyoto, but the latter two countries used Davos to reaffirm their support for steps to reduce the effects of climate change. The forum heard that China and India will need Western clean-energy technology, notably clean coal combustion and nuclear energy, before they can take part in future deals. Jacques Aigrain, CEO of Swiss Re stressed that it is essential to transfer clean-energy solutions to both China and India. They need to use coal so they need access to clean coal-based energy technologies, he told delegates at Davos.

Zhang Xiaoqiang, vice chairman of China's National Development and Reform Commission, stressed that his country intends to follow the Kyoto Protocol, and urged the speeding up of negotiations and establishing of concrete emission targets. While China intends to keep its emissions low, Zhang said, cement and steel production is highly energy intensive and only around as half as efficient as technologies used in the West.

Montek Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of India's Planning Commission, reported that his country's strategy is similar to that of China, but that India is increasingly turning to nuclear power to cut emissions.




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