Global Warming
Global Warming

Global warmingalso called climate changerefers to the worldwide rise in temperatures that has been blamed for severe weather in many parts of the world. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) a worldwide consortium of scientists set up in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the world’s average temperature has risen by 1.1° F (0.6° C) over the past century. The Earth Policy Institute reported that 2010 was the hottest year on record with an average global temperature of 14.63 degrees Celsius (EPI,
2008). The IPCC also predicts an increase in average temperature between 2.5° F (1.4° C) and 10.4° F (5.8° C) over the next century, a rate of warming unprecedented in the last 10,000 years.

This same panel concluded in its 2007 report that it is 90 percent certain that human emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause of the global rise in temperature (“Evidence” 2007). This rise in temperature is blamed for a number of environmental problems, such as an increase in the worldwide sea level by 11 to 17 inches (28 to 43 centimeters) caused by melting ice glaciers that threatens to swamp coastal land areas and islands (National Geographic, 2007). Global warming may also cause higher precipitation levels and more frequent severe weather, such as El Niño. In 2012 it was estimated that devastation attributed global climate change had risen to 1.6 percent of global GDP, after Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. It is forecast that the most hard hit economy will be China, facing $1.2 trillion in the next twenty years (Sharma, 2012).

The cause of global warming is human activity, including fossil fuel combustion associated with industrial development, the burning of forests by farmers in the developing world, and even biomass combustion—the burning of wood, coal, and dung for cooking and heat—by the poor. These activities have produced emissions of gases, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFC’s), which contains elements such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorine, fluorine, and bromide (together called halogens). CFCs and HCFCs are often described as “greenhouse gases” because they warm the atmosphere by trapping heat from the sun and cause the “greenhouse effect.”

To combat these problems, in 1992 the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)established a commitment “to achieve…stabilization of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at levels that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human-induced) interference with the climate system” (UNFCCC, 1997). Since then, 192 countries have joined the UNFCCC, and (and 4 countries have joined as ‘observer countries’), and as of April 2012, 191 states and the EU have ratified the Kyoto protocol, the latest of which was Afghanistan on April 3, 2012.

The Kyoto Protocol is a more stringent and detailed procedure for execution of the UNFCCC goals. Under the Protocol, developed, signatory nations are supposed to achieve a five to seven percent reduction from 1990 levels in CO2 emissions by 2008 to 2012. Developing nations do not have such specific targets, but are incentivized to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through voluntary targets, technology transfer, and the income generated by the cap-and-trade market designated in the protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol came into force in 2005 after signed the agreement. At least 55 countries that account for a total of 55 percent or more of greenhouse gas emissions (at 1990 levels) must ratify the protocol for it to take effect. Most importantly, despite being one of the 84 drafters of the Protocol in 1997, the United States has been an outspoken critic of the agreement since then, and as the producer of about one-third (est. 2008) of greenhouse gases emissions (with only about five percent of the world population) (ENS, 2007). The U.S. refusal to ratify has almost single-handedly thwarted the effectiveness of the protocol, and the Obama administration has not given any signal that this is likely to change. The majority of the international community stays committed to pushing forward with this protocol and future environmental agreements in the hopes that the U.,S., will feel greater pressure from its population and others to join as well.

However, as stated by the International Herald Tribune (June 13, 2008), China has now clearly overtaken the U.S. as the leading emitter of climate-warming gases (Krugman, 2008). As a developing country, China is pardoned from the Kyoto Protocol’s requirements to reduce emissions of global warming gases. According to the New York Times (November 07, 2006), “unregulated emissions from China, India and other developing countries are likely to account for most of the global increase in carbon dioxide emissions over the next quarter-century.” This raises a larger issue: how can developing countries balance the obligation of becoming part of the “developed world”, while simultaneously keeping global warming gases to a minimum?

The United States and other countries, such as Australia, have voiced several concerns about the Kyoto Protocol, focusing on its scientific basis, economic cost, feasibility and fairness.

First, critics of the protocol question how serious global warming is. For example, the IPCC has never offered a specific figure for an acceptable concentration of greenhouse gases, and Thomas C. Schelling, a professor at the University of Maryland, estimated in the May/June 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs that an acceptable concentration ranges widely between 600 and 1200 parts per million (Schelling, 2002). In May 2013 atmospheric CO2 concentrations reached 400 parts per million for the first time in several million years. At the beginning of the industrialization, concentration of CO2 was just 280ppm (Carrington, 2013). With this kind of uncertainty, say the protocol’s critics, the benefits of reducing emissions cannot be adequately compared to its disadvantages. Supporters of the protocol, on the other hand, say that the prospect of better scientific knowledge in the future should not prevent action in the present.

Second, there will undoubtedly be an economic cost to reducing greenhouse emissions. For example, closing down cheap coal-fired electricity plants and replacing them with cleaner but more expensive natural-gas burning plants would increase energy prices. Likewise, forcing automobile manufacturers to produce more energy-efficient cars would be expensive. As a result, the economy as a whole would face slower growth and lost jobs, although the exact amount of such a reduction is subject to debate.

Furthermore, there is a cultural divide over how concerned we should be about environmental risk versus economic development. For instance, Europeans are generally more willing than Americans to pay high fuel taxes and drive small cars in order to protect the environment. And, as previously mentioned, developing countries tend to prioritize economic growth over reducing their emissions.

Third, critics say that the prescribed timeframe for emissions cuts is unreasonable and unrealistic. For example, carbon dioxide emissions in the United States increased by 13 percent in the 1990s, so that meeting the Kyoto targets for reduction from 1990 levels would require the United States to cut emissions by about 30 percent from the levels they would otherwise be projected to reach by 2010 (Gallagher, 2002). In 2011 it was reported that the countries had collectively exceeded their target for reducing carbon emissions. In total the level of carbon emissions was 14 percent lower than their 1990 levels, with the target being a four percent reduction. Despite this the U.S. has not signed on as part of the second round for reduction of greenhouse gases (PBL, 2011).

Instead, the United States wants reduction efforts to focus on “greenhouse gas intensity”—emissions per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—arguing that this measure considers emissions reductions within the context of economic growth. For example, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while absolute levels of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions grew 12 percent in the 1990s, greenhouse gas intensity actually declined 17 percent. Thus, economic growth produced extra pollution, but the economy as a whole was in fact becoming cleaner and more efficient (EPA, 2009).

Fourth, critics decry the protocol’s weaker restrictions on developing countries—particularly India and China—than on developed countries. While the UNFCCC provides a general mandate for all countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the specific commitments entailed in the Kyoto Protocol apply only to a group of rich countries on the basis that rich countries are best economically positioned to adopt environmental protection measures (Kyoto,1997).

On the other hand, it is relatively easier for poor nations to upgrade outdated, dirty industrial processes by applying modern technology already available in wealthy countries. In fact, the Kyoto Protocol calls for rich countries to provide technological and capacity-building assistance to poor countries so that these “easy” emissions reductions can be made, with the simultaneous benefit of a badly needed boost to economic efficiency.

Developing nations, however, argue that it is unfair to burden their current economic development with environmental regulations while the richer countries enjoyed unfettered development in decades past without environmental restrictions (McGregor, 2007).

These differences between the United States and many other countries have delayed implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, but most of the international community seems determined to press ahead. Since 2002, the European Union, Japan, and Russia have ratified the Protocol, meeting the 55 percent threshold of global emissions and put the protocol into effect. As of May 2008, 182 parties have ratified or acceded to the Kyoto Protocol.

Nevertheless, the disputes over the balance between economic development and environmental protection and between the responsibilities of rich and poor countries will have to be settled before an internationally coordinated strategy on reducing greenhouses gases can gain the participation of the United States.

A new direction for U.S. environmental policy was a big draw for many voters in the 2008 election. The Obama administration’s policy on climate is to invest over $150 billion on energy research and development and green jobs in the U.S. in the next ten years. In his second inaugural address the President reaffirmed his commitment to sustainable energy and tackling climate change. This came off the heels of the devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy in October of 2012. As of 2013, President Obama had committed $90 billion in stimulus spending for clean energy projects, but has not taken any other significant steps to combat climate change (Martinson, 2013). Governments have agreed to try to reach a deal on a binding UN pact to deal with climate change, going into effect in 2020 to replace the expired Kyoto Protocol. However, the ability of President Obama to act on reduce carbon emissions is limited by a divided Congress and how much can be achieved in his last term remains to be seen (Doyle, 2013). .

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