The debate's over: Globe is warming
By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY
Don't look now, but the ground has shifted on global warming. After decades of debate over whether the planet is heating and, if so, whose fault it is, divergent groups are joining hands with little fanfare to deal with a problem they say people can no longer avoid.
General Electric is the latest big corporate convert; politicians at the state and national level are looking for solutions; and religious groups are taking philosophical and financial stands to slow the progression of climate change.
They agree that the problem is real. A recent study led by James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies confirms that, because of carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases, Earth is trapping more energy from the sun than it is releasing back into space.
The U.N. International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that global temperatures will rise 2 to 10 degrees by 2100. A "middle of the road" projection is for an average 5-degree increase by the end of the century, says Caspar Amman of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.
What the various factions don't necessarily agree on is what to do about it. The heart of the discussion is "really about how to deal with climate change, not whether it's happening," says energy technology expert James Dooley of the Battelle Joint Global Change Research Institute in College Park, Md. "What are my company's options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Are there new business opportunities associated with addressing climate change? Those are the questions many businesses are asking today."
GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt recently announced that his company, which reports $135 billion in annual revenue, will spend $1.5 billion a year to research conservation, pollution and the emission of greenhouse gases. Joining him for the announcement were executives from such mainline corporations as American Electric Power, Boeing and Cinergy.
Religious groups, such as the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, National Association of Evangelicals and National Council of Churches, have joined with scientists to call for action on climate change under the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. "Global warming is a universal moral challenge," the partnership's statement says.
And high-profile politicians from both parties are getting into the act. For example, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for a reduction of more than 80% over the next five decades in his state's emission of greenhouse gases that heat in the atmosphere.
To be sure, many companies most notably oil industry leader ExxonMobil still express skepticism about the effects of global warming. And the Bush administration has supported research and voluntary initiatives but has pulled back from a multi-nation pact on environmental constraints.
The administration was on the defensive last week when The New York Times reported that a staff lawyer has been softening scientific assessments of global warming. White House spokesman Scott McClellan defended such action as a routine part of a multi-agency review process.
Nonetheless, the tides of change appear to be moving on. "As big companies fall off the 'I don't believe in climate change' bandwagon, people will start to take this more seriously," says environmental scientist Don Kennedy, editor in chief of the journal Science.
Companies aren't changing because of a sudden love for the environment, Kennedy says, but because they see change as an opportunity to protect their investments.
"On the business side, it just looks like climate change is not going away," says Kevin Leahy of Cinergy, a Cincinnati-based utility that reports $4.7 billion in annual revenue and provides electricity, mostly generated from coal, to 1.5 million customers. Most firms see global warming as a problem whose risks have to be managed, he says.
Power companies want to know what sort of carbon constraints they face carbon dioxide is the chief greenhouse gas so they can plan long term and avoid being hit with dramatic emission limits or penalties in the future, he says.
Science and solutions
Climate scientists say this acceptance comes none too soon. "All the time we should have been moving forward ... has been wasted by arguing if the problem even exists," says Michael Mann of the University of Virginia.
The IPCC estimates that rainfall will increase up to 20% in wet regions, causing floods, while decreasing 20% in arid areas, causing droughts. The Environmental Protection Agency says melting glaciers and warmer ocean waters will likely cause an average 2-foot rise in sea level on all U.S. coasts by 2100.
Carbon dioxide is the byproduct of burning fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas or oil. There are now about 1 trillion tons of carbon from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. By the end of the century, atmos-pheric carbon projections range from 1.2 trillion tons if stringent corrective steps are taken to 2.8 trillion tons if little is done.
Moving ahead with solutions looks like the hardest part of the equation for the United States. The Bush administration's stance has frustrated advocates of a more aggressive response.
Bush explained in a 2001 speech why he opposed joining the Kyoto Protocol, a global agreement to curb greenhouse gases: "The (Kyoto) targets themselves were arbitrary and not based upon science. For America, complying with those mandates would have a negative economic impact, with layoffs of workers and price increases."
Instead, the administration "harnesses the power of markets and technological innovation, maintains economic growth, and encourages global participation," former Energy Department head Spencer Abraham wrote last year in Science. He pointed to tax incentive programs, climate research and technologies such as "FutureGen," the Energy Department's 10-year,$1 billion attempt at creating a coal-fired power plant that emits no greenhouse gases.
Other administration efforts:
The $1.7 billion hydrogen fuel-cell car initiative announced two years ago in Bush's State of the Union address.
A $49 million carbon "sequestration" initiative with 65 projects to see whether carbon dioxide can be stripped from emissions.
Participation in the international ITER program to develop nuclear fusion as an energy source.
The administration has encouraged voluntary efforts. Fourteen trade groups representing industrial, energy, transportation and forest companies have signed up for a program aimed at cutting greenhouse-gas emissions 18% by 2012.
So why isn't this enough to assuage critics?
Rick Piltz, a science policy expert who resigned in protest from the administration's Climate Change Science Program in March, says the reliance on voluntary measures and long-term technology breakthroughs is a roadblock against simple conservation steps that could curb emissions now. Piltz provided the edited documents that were the subject of last week's story in The New York Times.
Commonly cited examples of the conservation steps Piltz mentions:
Incentives for emission controls on the oldest and least efficient power plants.
More stringent mileage and tailpipe requirements on vehicles.
Expanded tax credits for more efficient air conditioners, hybrid cars and appliances.
Political leaders will support such measures only if the benefits come at a low cost to the economy, says William Reilly, co-chair of the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy and former head of the EPA under President George H.W. Bush. "But there is a lot going on, and I think we will be seeing some movement on this."
Away from the political arena, other irons are in the fire:
More people are advocating nuclear power. Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore told a congressional panel in April that "nuclear energy is the only non-greenhouse gas-emitting energy source that can effectively replace fossil fuels and satisfy global demand."
Immelt called for the United States to adopt an emissions-trading plan for greenhouse gases. Taking a cue from the EPA's policy of having companies buy and sell permits to release sulfur dioxide, which is responsible for acid rain, economists suggest that such a scheme would limit carbon dioxide by making emissions economically less feasible.
In Congress, the Climate Stewardship Act proposed by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., would commit the country to such a plan.
No 'silver bullet' solution
Pressure for reforms may come most strongly from "socially responsible" investors. "We make bottom-line arguments to companies to make decisions in the interests of their shareholders," says John Wilson of Christian Brothers Investment Services, which manages $3.5 billion in investor funds. The firm advises 1,000 Catholic institutions, such as churches, schools and hospitals.
A Christian Brothers resolution in May asked ExxonMobil "to explain the scientific basis for its ongoing denial of the broad scientific consensus that the burning of fossil fuels contributes to global climate change." The resolution garnered 10.3% of shareholders' votes, representing 665 million shares worth more than $36 billion, despite the opposition of management.
"The future of energy is plainly moving away from fossil fuels and we want the companies (that) we invest in to explain how they plan to adjust," Wilson says.
Dooley, of the Battelle Institute, says: "We need a whole series of 'home runs' and maybe even a couple of 'grand slams' to successfully address this problem.
More efficient refrigerators, better and cheaper solar cells, hybrid automobiles, fuel cells, power plants that capture and store their (carbon dioxide) deep below the surface and nuclear power. They all have important roles to play."
"No one seriously talks about trying to address climate change with one technology," Dooley says. "Everyone understands that there isn't a 'silver bullet' out there waiting to be discovered."