Global Warming In Brief - Q&A
November 10, 2000

Consumer Alert

The Global Warming Debate
In 1992 the United States and nations from around the world met at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio and agreed to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. The Rio Treaty was not legally binding and, because reducing emissions would likely cause great economic damage, many nations will not meet the goal.
Representatives from around the world met again in December of 1997 at a conference in Kyoto to sign a revised agreement. The Clinton Administration negotiators agreed to legally binding, internationally enforceable limits on the emission of greenhouse gases as a key tenet of the treaty.
The president's position is based on the idea that global warming is real and that it is caused by human activity. Further, it presupposes that the potential damage caused by global warming would greatly outweigh the damage caused to the economy by severely restricting energy use. Finally, his position assumes that the agreement will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions world wide and will prevent global warming. However, as this pamphlet shows, each of these premises is still very much in doubt.
In May 1997 Consumer Alert formed a subgroup of the National Consumer Coalition on climate change policy, the "Cooler Heads" Coalition, to address the consumer impact of climate change policies.

Is global warming occurring?
" According to Accu-Weather, the worlds leading commercial forecaster, "Global air temperatures as measured by land-based weather stations show an increase of about 0.45 degrees Celsius over the past century. This may be no more than normal climatic variation...[and] several biases in the data may be responsible for some of this increase."

" Satellite data indicate a slight cooling in the climate in the last 18 years. These satellites use advanced technology and are not subject to the "heat island" effect around major cities that alters ground-based thermometers.

" Projections of future climate changes are uncertain. Although some computer models predict warming in the next century, these models are very limited. The effects of cloud formations, precipitation, the role of the oceans, or the sun, are still not well known and often inadequately represented in the climate models --- although all play a major role in determining our climate. Scientists who work on these models are quick to point out that they are far from perfect representations of reality, and are probably not advanced enough for direct use in policy implementation. Interestingly, as the computer climate models have become more sophisticated in recent years, the predicted increase in temperature has been lowered.

Are humans causing the climate to change?

" 98% of total global greenhouse gas emissions are natural (mostly water vapor); only 2% are from man-made sources.

" By most accounts, man-made emissions have had no more than a minuscule impact on the climate. Although the climate has warmed slightly in the last 100 years, 70% percent of that warming occurred prior to 1940, before the upsurge in greenhouse gas emissions from industrial processes. (Dr. Robert C. Balling, Arizona State University)

" A Gallup survey indicated that only 17% of the members of the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Society thought the warming of the 20th century was the result of an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

If global warming occurs, will it be harmful?

" The idea that global warming would melt the ice caps and flood coastal cities seems to be mere science fiction. A slight increase in temperature -- whether natural or mankind induced -- is not likely to lead to a massive melting of the earth ice caps, as sometimes claimed in the media. Also, sea-level rises over the centuries relate more to warmer and thus expanding oceans, not to melting ice caps.

" Contrary to some groups' fear mongering about the threat of diseases, temperature changes are likely to have little effect on the spread of diseases. Experts say that deterioration in public health practices such as rapid urbanization without adequate infrastructure, forced large scale resettlement of people, increased drug resistance, higher mobility through air travel, and lack of insect-control programs have the greatest impact on the spread of vector-borne diseases.

" Larger quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere and warmer climates would likely lead to an increase in vegetation. During warm periods in history vegetation flourished, at one point allowing the Vikings to farm in now frozen Greenland.

What are the policy proposals?

" The U.S. agreed to a 7% reduction of CO2 emissions from what they were in 1990 -- a target to be met by 2008-2012. This agreement would result in massive restrictions on energy use and large taxpayer-funded subsidies for new technologies.

" The Clinton Administration has supported a system of tradable permits to be used by companies that emit CO2. These permits could be bought and sold inter-nationally, giving companies an incentive to lower emissions and thus sell their permits. But this system would require massive international oversight on the order of a worldwide EPA to track CO2 emissions, and the costs to consumers would still be high.

" Because of the devastating effects that global warming policies will have on economic growth, the treaty that was discussed in Kyoto in December 1997 currently excludes developing nations. However, the US Senate has voted 95-0 against supporting a treaty that doesnt include developing nations.

What economic impact will the proposals have?

" According to a report by the Department of Energy, stringent targets to reduce fossil-fuel emissions in the US will cause energy-intensive industries, including steel, iron, chemical, rubber and plastic, to flee from the developed countries to undeveloped countries, taking with them hundreds of thousands of jobs.

" Carbon taxes will cause relatively large income losses in the poorest one-fifth of the population. The poor, because they spend a greater proportion of their income on necessities, would have few ways to cut back to compensate for higher living costs.

" Stabilizing emissions at 1990 levels by 2010 would reduce the growth of US per capita income by 5% per year.(Gary W. Yohe, Wesleyan University)

" The burden would fall on many individuals and families and would be unfair in that it would be quite unrelated to income, wealth or ability to pay. Instead, the burden would be determined by energy use patterns and circumstances, such as distance from work, condition and energy efficiency of homes, automobiles, and appliances.

" Senior citizens on fixed incomes would find their energy costs escalating and their income dwindling.

Will the policies actually stop global warming?

" By all estimates, only severe reductions in global CO2 emissions -- on the order of 60 percent or more -- will alter the computer forecasts. The resulting economic dislocations would be tremendous, potentially outweighing the negative impacts of even the most apocalyptic warming scenario.

" If the policies do not include developing nations the result will likely be a reallocation of emissions to developing nations, not a reduction of emissions.

" If the entire world is included and CO2 emissions are severely restricted, the science is not clear what impact, if any, it would have on the worlds climate.

For more information on global climate change, please contact
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