Pressure is mounting on federal agencies to stop studying global warming and start doing something about it.
Soon after the projector starts rolling on An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore, former vice president and star of the global warming documentary, laments that he tried to tell this story for a long time but failed to get the message across. Later in the film, which is based on a slide show Gore delivers around the world, he takes a swipe at Congress for its long-standing indifference to the problem of climate change caused by human activities. Says Gore: "If the issue is not on the tips of their constituents' tongues, it's easy for them to ignore it."
Message received, judging from the spontaneous reactions of a dozen or so viewers who took in an afternoon matinee to escape the heat in the Orlando, Fla., suburb of Winter Park in late July. The big screen flickered with scene after scene of melting glaciers and evaporating lakes and more than a few fever charts of escalating temperatures and thickening greenhouse gases. But it was an animated graphic-showing how rising sea levels eventually will inundate most of the state of Florida if something isn't done to curb fossil fuel emissions soon-that took this crowd's collective breath.
"Wow." Gasps of fright drowned out the crackle of candy wrappers. "Whoa."
"Oh, my God!" went the impromptu soundtrack. "Jesus!"
Some members of Congress got religion, too, judging from the midsummer buzz on Capitol Hill. On July 20, the House Government Reform Committee held its first hearing on global warming in seven years. Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., recognized the movie's role in pushing climate change "to the forefront of America's discourse" and said, "We've seen the deluge of attention to An Inconvenient Truth and its depiction of the potential disasters of global warming. We're here today to acknowledge that too many elected officials have for too long been missing in action on this issue."
Davis called the hearing to get an update on the current state of global warming science and to press key Bush administration officials to explain White House policies for addressing the climate change issues. What he and his colleagues heard from nine witnesses at the daylong meeting was a nearly unanimous plea to stop arguing about the problem and get busy solving it.
The Bush administration boasts it is spending more than any other nation-$29 billion since 2001-to find ways to curb greenhouse gas emissions both at home and abroad through strategies that safeguard long-term economic growth. "The president is sustaining U.S. leadership begun by his father and carried out through the Clinton-Gore administration when it comes to practical actions to address this important issue," says James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "We're making accelerated progress," he says, adding, "This rate of progress domestically . . . is on par with what our counterparts are achieving internationally in the developed world."
But the administration's critics are quick to point out that it was President Bush who in 2001 pulled the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement 20 years in the making among industrialized nations around the world to cut greenhouse gas emissions. "My biggest regret as an American is that the United States didn't take leader-ship in multilateral international negotiations to deal with climate change two decades ago and released its leadership role to other countries, so we ended up with something that our Congress didn't like and our country wasn't engaged in developing," Jay Gulledge, a senior research fellow with the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said at the July 20 hearing. "Now we're just being left behind and we do not have a leadership role on one of the biggest issues in the world."
Some state governments are taking it upon themselves to fight global warming. About half have climate action plans and almost two dozen have renewable energy resource targets for utilities to meet. Not 10 days after the hearing, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and British Prime Minister Tony Blair sidestepped the Bush administration to strike a deal on a carbon trading program that could help them both reduce emissions.
Critics say the White House deliberately creates confusion about global warming in order to avoid making politically unpopular decisions to address it. The allegations by politicians and scientists alike run the gamut from bureaucratic ineffectiveness to unethical meddling to outright obfuscation. Earlier this year, James Hansen, the esteemed NASA climatologist, said the space agency's public affairs office was muzzling him for speaking the truth about rising temperatures. NASA revised its public affairs policy. Last year, Philip A. Cooney, a former petroleum industry lobbyist, was allowed to edit federal scientific reports, allegedly to downplay links between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Cooney quit his job as Connaughton's chief of staff after The New York Times revealed his handiwork in drafts of reports issued in 2002 and 2003. He immediately went to work for Exxon Mobil Corp.
"We need to stop letting the coal companies, the oil companies and the other special interests dictate our approach to global warming. Instead we need to start listening to the scientists," says Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the top Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee. At the hearing, Waxman and Davis announced that the committee was looking into the controversy surrounding Cooney's actions. They asked Connaughton to turn over by Aug. 11 volumes of correspondence and other documents relating to the scandal and told him that he can expect to be called to testify about it sometime soon.
The natural greenhouse effect is a real and essential component of the planet's climate process. Without greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, water vapor and methane in the atmosphere, the temperature on Earth would be too cold to support life as we know it. But some greenhouse gases are increasing-trapping heat from the sun that normally would escape back into space. The most abundant greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide. It has increased 35 percent in the past century, mostly due to increased burning of gasoline, oil, coal and forests. Global temperature has risen about 1 degree Fahrenheit in the same period.
Using climate-modeling supercomputers and other research tools, scientists have found a correlation between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, rising temperatures, ocean warmth and extreme weather. "There's considerable confidence that the observed warming, especially since the 1970s, is mostly attributable to changes in atmospheric composition due to human influences. While there is considerable uncertainty about the rates of change that can be expected, it is clear these changes will be increasingly manifested in important and intangible ways," says Thomas R. Karl, director of the world's largest archive of weather and climate information, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.
Could ferocious hurricanes be one of those manifestations forecast by Karl? Scientists have been examining in earnest for the past few years a possible link between global warming and the increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes. Judith Curry, chairwoman of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, says two "very provocative, landmark studies by two reputable scientific groups" published evidence of a connection during last year's monster hurricane season. "They have been categorically ignored by NOAA," she says. A self-described global warming skeptic-turned-believer, Curry told lawmakers that she is puzzled about why some NOAA scientists insist in congressional testimony, media interviews and on the agency's Web site that there is no evidence of a connection. "I don't know what is driving this," she said. "[It] seems irresponsible to me because these statements by NOAA are by default the official government position on the subject."
There have been persistent disagreements over whether global warming itself is a reality, but a June report from the National Research Council essentially put an end to those. In Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years (National Academies, 2006), a panel of climate experts concluded that there is sufficient evidence from tree rings, soil and ice core samples, retreating glaciers and coral reefs around the world to say with "a high level of confidence" that the last few decades of the 20th century were the warmest of any in 400 years. Congress ordered the study after a controversial 1998 report concluded that the 1990s were the hottest decade in the millennium. The experts agreed the finding was plausible. They emphasized that temperature records since 1600 are not at all in doubt. Generally speaking, climate scientists accepted the report as solid proof that humans are adjusting nature's thermostat.
Consensus is not as simple on Capitol Hill and at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The House Government Reform Committee took pains to include a skeptical witness, John R. Christy, a National Research Council panelist. "We don't see the catastrophic direction of the climate system," Christy, director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, told the lawmakers. In an interview published July 6, President Bush told People.com, "I think we have a problem on global warming. I think there is a debate about whether it's caused by mankind or whether it's caused naturally, but it's a worthy debate." Bush continued, "It's a debate, actually, that I'm in the process of solving by advancing new technologies, burning coal cleanly in electric plants, or promoting hydrogen-powered automobiles, or advancing ethanol as an alternative to gasoline."
At the hearing, Connaughton initially had this to say about the climate change debate: It might be polarized at the top but on lower levels, where the science and policy groundwork are done, "the fair characterization is, there's actually a raging amount of consensus." Connaughton continued, "The president has made clear that climate is a serious issue, serious problem; humans are a big part of the problem and we need to just get on with it." Pressed later to explain the president's remarks to People.com, Connaughton told the lawmakers, "From the policy perspective, there's a lot of agreement-top-line-on warming, a lot of agreement on human contribution to the problem," but that debate persists on "lower-level" questions about how natural and human forces affect it.
Even Bush allies are complaining that the administration's actions do not match its rhetoric. For instance, Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., is particularly disappointed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's behavior regarding fuel economy standards for pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles and vans. NHTSA tightened the standards in March but not as much as it could have, given the available technology. The nonprofit organization Public Citizen in Washington calls the standards "lax." Shays scolded Connaughton at the hearing, saying the White House invites the criticism it gets. "If the administration was viewed as being pro-environment, some Republicans thought that was bad," he said. "I think that's why the administration is in the mess it is. A lot of the good steps it's taken it will not get credit for, because of that."
Connaughton said the administration's climate change policy is based on science, encourages research breakthroughs that lead to technological innovation, and takes advantage of the power of markets to bring into widespread use the technologies and practices necessary to curb emissions. The potential cost of implementing the Kyoto Protocol in the United States-a Government Accountability Office estimate puts it somewhere between $7 billion and $397 billion by 2010-was one reason the administration objected to the treaty. Connaughton said it sets emissions targets that are unfair and impossible for the United States to reach.
The administration's strategy encompasses everything from stricter vehicle gas mileage standards to nuclear power revival and development of zero-emissions coal-fired generating plants. Thirteen federal agencies sponsor research on global climate change. Their priorities, budgets and science work are integrated by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program in Washington. It was created in 2002 under a new cabinet-level organization designed to improve the governmentwide management of climate science and climate-related technology development. With annual expenditures of about $2 billion in 2006, the program combines the near-term focus of the Bush administration's 2001 Climate Change Research Initiative with long-term research elements of the U.S. Global Change Research Program established by Congress in 1990. Its threefold mission is to investigate natural and human-induced changes in Earth's global environmental system; monitor, understand and predict global change; and provide a sound scientific basis for decision-making.
The specific goal is to reduce the greenhouse gas intensity of the U.S. economy 18 percent by 2012. "Our objective is to first significantly slow the growth of emissions and, as the science continues to inform us, stop the growth of emissions and then reverse it," Connaughton said during the hearing. The goal represents an average annual improvement rate of about 1.96 percent. Connaughton said a preliminary estimate from the Energy Information Administration showed emissions intensity dropped 3.3 percent in 2005.
In pursuit of its goal, the administration is engaging in a range of partnerships, incentives and mandatory programs. By Connaughton's count, more than 60 federal programs are directed at and are developing and deploying cleaner, more efficient energy technologies, fuel conservation and carbon sequestration. Mandatory programs include a 15 percent improvement in fuel economy standards for new light trucks and large sport utility vehicles, a 7.5-billion-gallon renewable ethanol requirement, and 15 efficiency standards for new appliances. Incentives include $5 billion in tax credits for clean energy systems and highly efficient vehicles, provided by the 2005 Energy Policy Act, and $40 billion for farm bill conservation programs to help farmers and ranchers biologically sequester carbon on their lands. Partnerships include a major new effort, the Energy Department's Climate VISION program, which has commitments from 15 major industrial sectors and the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers, to work with the Energy, Transportation and Agriculture departments and the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce greenhouse gases in the next decade; EPA's Climate Leaders, with nearly 100 leading companies setting aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals; and EPA's SmartWay Transport Partnership, which targets diesel-fueled freight carriers that idle while parked overnight.
Critics say 18 percent by 2012 is an empty goal because a promise to reduce the intensity of greenhouse gas emissions is not the same as simply reducing them. Emissions intensity is a ratio obtained by dividing emissions in a given year by economic output for that year. Changes in intensity depend on the rate of change in emissions and economic output. The Council on Environmental Quality does not dispute that the process actually will allow emissions to increase 14 percent over time.
The administration is under fire not just for what it is doing to address global warming, but also for how well it is managing what it is doing. The latter criticisms come mostly from a slew of Government Accountability Office reports, which note:
- The Climate Change Science Program missed a November 2004 deadline to update the Clinton administration's 2000 global warming assessment of current research, environmental effects and major trends; the plan to publish 21 shorter reports on different topics between 2005 and 2007 will not be the most effective decision-making tool for Congress (GAO-05-338R).
- Reports on climate change funding from the program and the Office of Management and Budget are unclear and incomplete, and it is difficult to compare funding by agency, because of continual changes in the format and content and categorization methods of the reports (GAO-05-461).
- Neither the Energy Department nor EPA is doing enough to encourage progress by participants in Climate Leaders and Climate VISION; overlaps make it difficult to quantify reductions attributable to either program (GAO-06-97).
Now that the human involvement riddle is solved, scientific debate has moved on to the sensitivity of the atmosphere to greenhouse gases and the extent of climate change that will come. The urgent political question is what action to take.
In the absence of a strong policy on global warming, a growing number of companies are taking it upon themselves to reduce emissions. Some are asking the government to respond in kind with a mandatory cap and trade system for greenhouse gases and financial incentives to conserve. Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, is one that intends to reduce its carbon footprint by 20 percent in seven years by applying energy-saving technologies in its stores and favoring suppliers that don't pollute. "Wal-Mart believes that the U.S. should provide strong leader- ship on climate change," says Andrew Ruben, Wal-Mart's vice president of corporate strategy and sustainability.
Roger Pielke Jr., director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental Sciences Center for Science and Technology Policy at the University of Colorado, says the federal government focuses too much on long-term research to reduce uncertainties about global warming and not enough on developing technology to help society adapt. He reminded the lawmakers that because research agendas emphasize the long term, relatively little attention is paid to developing specific policy options or near-term technologies that might have both short- and long-term benefits. He noted that it is easy for policy- makers to shift the burden of finding solutions to the scientific community, effectively using research policies as a substitute for other types of action.
Until the government's climate science and technology enterprise is organized to focus on short-term policy options, he said, the global warming debate will remain gridlocked. Pielke admonished the lawmakers: "You've got a lot of good science . . . but you're not getting many options. I want to see you bringing the leaders of those programs and the executive branch here and saying, 'What are the options that are resulting from this multibillion-dollar investment?' "